A Divine Encampment

May 10, 2010

15 min read


Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20 )

The Book of Bamidbar, and the parsha which gives it its name, begins with a census. Apparently, this is in preparation for the march from Sinai to the Land of Israel, with an eye towards military preparedness.

From twenty years old and upward, all Israelites who are fit for military service; you and Aharon shall count them by their troops. (Bamidbar 1:3)

The focus of these verses seems practical, secular, even mundane: an army is needed for the next chapter in Jewish history, the conquest of the Land of Israel. None of the nation's failings in the desert, none of the causes of their forty-year delay, are foreseeable. Their vision of the Land of Israel is unimpeded at this juncture. They need only turn their sights away from Mount Sinai and begin their short trek to the borders of the Promised Land.(1)

And so, after the census is completed, the Torah turns its attention to the formation in which the people will travel, camp, and conquer:

And when the Israelites camp, each individual shall be in his designated camp, and every person by his own degel according to their armies. (Bamidbar 1:52)

Three different words are used to instruct them as to the particular formation in which the people are to arrange themselves: mahaneh, degel and tzava. Mahane means "camp", tzava - army. The word degel, which most people familiar with modern Hebrew would translate as "flag", is in fact a division within the army:

As the divisions are arranged in this book, three tribes to each division. (Rashi, Bamidar 1:52)

The word degel is used again in the following chapter:

Every individual of the People of Israel shall camp by his own degel, according to the otot (insignia) of their father's house. They shall camp at a specified distance around the Tent of Meeting. (Bamidbar 2:2)

Once again, multiple terms are used in the encampment instructions: degel and ot. This new word seems somehow familiar, yet its usage here differs slightly from the meaning with which we are familiar. In the past, Noah, Moshe, the Israelites, and even Paroh were given otot, signs or symbols of God's power and His direct involvement in human history. Here, the otot remind us of a more familiar sort of symbol:

Each division should have an ot (a sign or insignia)- a colored sheet hanging in its midst. The color of one should not be like the color of another. The color of each should be like the hue of the stone which represents that tribe in the Hoshen, and thus every person will recognize his division. (Rashi, Bamidbar 2:2)

This description of the otot is unquestionably of flags; degel, used today in common parlance as "flag", originally referred to a division of people for either military or civilian purposes. Thus, the otot, the variously colored flags, were symbols used to organize people into degalim, divisions or battalions.

While this type of symbol is more "familiar" than the heavenly signs that God gave to human beings in Bereishit and Shmot, it is far from "mundane." Rashi's comment gives us a new perspective on the division of the people that is being organized in these verses. Whereas we assumed that the military task at hand was the impetus for creating these divisions, Rashi points out that the flags that symbolized these divisions reflected a much loftier origin: the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol. In this light, the division of the camp takes on a different tone. These divisions, this formation, is not born simply out of military necessity.(2) The degalim, and the otot with which they are represented, reflect something much greater, much deeper.

Rashi offers a second interpretation of this verse that offers even greater insight into the otot:

'With the otot (insignia or sign) of their father's house;' - with the sign that Yaakov passed down to them, as it says "his sons did as he commanded:" Yehuda, Yissachar, and Zevulun from the east, Reuven, Shimon and Gad from the south, etc., as is found in the Midrash Tanchuma. (Rashi, Bamidbar 2:2)

This configuration was no simple concession to military expediency; this formation was an ot (sign) shared by our forefather Yaakov with his twelve sons.

"... otot of their father's house:" ...For R. Hama, son of R. Hanina, said: 'When our father Yaakov was about to depart from the world he summoned his sons - as it is written, "And Yaakov called to his sons (Bereishit 49:10);" and he blessed them and commanded them concerning the ways of God, and they accepted upon themselves Divine Sovereignty. Having concluded his address, he said to them, 'When you carry me to my last resting-place you must escort me with proper reverence and respect. No other man shall touch my bier; neither an Egyptian nor any of your children, because you have taken wives from the daughters of Canaan.' For this reason Scripture says, "And his sons did as he commanded them;" (Bereishit 50:12) his sons, but not his grandsons; "and his sons carried him." (ib., 13) How did he command them to do it? He said to them: "My children, when my bier is being carried, Yehudah, Yissachar and Zevulun shall be on the east side; Reuven, Shimon and Gad shall be on the south side; Efrayim, Menasheh and Binyamin shall be on the west side; Dan, Asher and Naftali shall be on the north side. (Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 2:8)

According to this explanation, b'otot refers to the "signs" given by their patriarch Yaakov; many years earlier, in his instructions to his sons for his burial, Yaakov taught his children to leave Egypt in a particular formation.(3) Not only did Yaakov instruct his sons on the place of his burial, he specified the manner in which his remains should be transported, dictated who the pallbearers should and should not be, and detailed the formation in which they should carry his remains from Egypt to Israel. Generations later, when the time came for his children's children to travel, once again, from Egypt to Israel, these instructions were followed; the otot that Yaakov transmitted to his sons were meant for all of his descendents.

Let us consider the fascinating imagery this creates: the entourage that carries Yaakov out of Egypt and accompanies him to his final resting place in the Cave of Machpela is arranged around Yaakov's aron (coffin), in the precise formation in which his descendents will one day march and encamp: the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark which housed the Tablets of Testimony within the Mishkan, was the focal point for the entire camp. In both cases, the epicenter, the aron that stood in the middle of the entire formation, defined the focus and purpose of the camp, imbuing it with holiness. The aron at the center turned this formation, this camp, into something far more than a convenient arrangement of people. The focus was always on the center, and each member of the formation had a specific place, a specific role.

This new book, the Book of Bamidbar, immediately follows the completion and consecration of the Mishkan, which was built in order to provide a conduit to holiness, to turn the singular experience of Mount Sinai into an ongoing dialogue with God.(4) Therefore it should come as no surprise(5) that midrashic sources link the formation into degalim with the events at Sinai.(6)

Another exposition of the text, "He has brought me to the house of wine:" When the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself upon Mount Sinai, twenty-two thousands angels(7) descended with Him, as it is said, "The chariots of God are two myriads, two thousands; God is among them at Sinai, in holiness [Tehilim 68:18], and they were all arrayed in separate degalim, as it is said, "Marked out by degalim from among myriads." [Shir haShirim 5:10] When Israel saw them arrayed in degalim they began to long for degalim, and said, 'O that we also could be arranged in degalim like them!' Therefore it is said, 'He has brought me into the house of wine,' and this refers to Sinai, upon which the Torah, which has been likened to wine, was given: "And drink of the wine which I have mingled." (Mishlei 9:5). Thus, "into the house of wine" is explained as referring to Sinai. "And his degel over me is love' [is explained as follows]: They said, 'O that He would show great love for me'; and this is also expressed in the text, 'We will shout for joy in Your salvation, [and in the name of our God we will arrange our degalim].' Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to them, 'How eager you are to be arranged in degalim; as you live, I shall fulfill your desire!' as we read, "God shall fulfill all your petitions." [Tehilim 20:6] The Holy One, blessed be He, immediately informed Israel by telling Moshe, 'Go, arrange them in degalim as they have desired.' (Midrash Rabbah - Bamidbar 2:3)

The Israelites experienced and perceived something at Sinai that they wished to take with them; we may call this perception a vision, or some type of enlightenment. Either way, they described or symbolized this enlightenment in terms of angels assembled in degalim. They, too, wished to organize themselves in this way.(8) At the foot of Mount Sinai, the Jews experienced an enlightened moment of clarity, a moment of profound unity and love.(9) They understood that this was the existence of angels, an existence of unity, with no jealousy and no competition.(10) This was what they hoped to take with them, to build in to their encampment, to use as the foundation for their life as a nation. This was another aspect of the Sinai experience they hoped to make a permanent fixture of their lives. The outward manifestation of the angels' harmonious existence as servants of God was their formation in degalim; this was what the Israelites sought to imitate. The Recanati explains this in terms of a larger kabbalistic idea: things which exist here on earth have a parallel in the heavenly spheres.(11) The degalim of the Jewish People are parallel to the degalim of the angels, precisely because the Jews achieved an unparalleled level of enlightenment and understanding at the foot of Mount Sinai which allowed them to glimpse the heavenly order and to fully grasp its significance. In this instance, earthly reality was inspired by a vision of the harmonious formation of the angels.

Yet the parallel goes even deeper: The angelic formation which the Israelites glimpsed at Sinai was arranged around a focal point of its own: the angels are, in a sense, the "army of God." The degalim of angels are organized around the Throne of God, like sentries or bearers of the Divine Throne, the Seat of God in heaven. When the Israelites saw this heavenly vision as they stood at the foot of Sinai, perhaps they hoped to imitate not only the formation of the angels that expressed unity, but also the manifestation of God's proximity and imminence. Perhaps this was what brought about the building of the Mishkan; perhaps this was another part of their Sinaitic enlightenment that the Jews hoped to recreate permanently.(12) They envied the angels' clarity of purpose, their total dedication to their respective tasks; they knew that, being human, they would be unable to maintain that level of focus after leaving Mount Sinai. The Mishkan, they knew, would help keep them centered - literally and figuratively - like the angels.(13)

How far could their emulation of the angels take them? Clearly, the differences between human and angelic existence make it impossible for the symbols of angelic unity to overcome human nature. Each angel is unique, defined and created to fulfill its own unique task; therefore, for angels, competition and jealousy are impossible. Human experience is quite different; we need little convincing that competition and jealousy are deeply ingrained in our collective personality. And yet, the Talmud tells us that what is perceived as human frailty is in fact a blessing: in many realms competition is healthy. Jealousy can spur competition among sages, resulting in greater investment in learning, more carefully honed and precisely presented opinions, and, ultimately, increased wisdom. It would seem, then, that the Divine Plan was never to create "human angels". While we may hope to emulate the angels, we are not like them in disposition or capabilities - for better and for worse. So it is with the degalim: The heavenly divisions are organized according to the manifestation of God expressed by each angel's task. For example, angels charged with missions of judgment or punishment are grouped together; angels charged with missions of mercy form another group. If, like each angel, every human being knew their precise place (degel), the exact role which they are meant to accomplish in this world, surely much of the angst of human experience would be resolved. However, man is ultimately unlike the angels. While angels are created for only one task, man is multifaceted. Woe to the person who after fulfilling one task, even if it is a Divinely mandated task, feels they have completed their role on earth. While it may be possible that out of a long life of physical and spiritual toil it was ultimately one gesture, one action, one tikun that justified or merited an individual's entire existence, such "spiritual calculus" is far removed from human comprehension, and is foreign to the life dictated by Torah values.

These differences notwithstanding, there are certain things we can learn from the angels. There are tasks that must be accomplished through human effort, and when the task at hand is of a spiritual nature, the Jewish People is called upon to take up the formation and the focus they learned from the angels. The conquest of the Land of Israel was such a task. It is a holy task, and the soldiers need to know that God is in their midst and they need to march forward with the same confidence with which angels set out to perform a divine mission. Although other realms of human endeavor require the creativity that results from competition, the task that the Children of Israel faced as they left Sinai required a type of unity, a singularity of purpose, a focus on the holiness of their camp and their destiny that was expressed by their new/old formation in degalim. Each member of the camp was uniquely positioned, fully aware of the unique role they were to play in the greater mission, each turning their focus away from their own ego and towards the Aron at the center of the camp.

Today, even though so many have lost sight of the camp, and are no longer aware of any degalim, when the unity of purpose and the focus and sanctity created by the degalim as they surrounded the Aron Kodesh are a distant dream, we may, at the very least, remind ourselves that these goals are achievable. We are, despite the time and the distance that separates us, still children of Yaakov. We are still able to connect to the otot that Yaakov gave to his children, and they to theirs; the enlightenment of Sinai is still ingrained in our collective memory. If we regain our focus, retrain our sights on the holiness that lies at our collective center, we will already be much closer to accomplishing our own Divine mission.(14)



1. See Seforno, Bamidbar 1:2, who agrees that the time had indeed come for them to enter the Land of Israel, but they would have faced no resistance: the occupants of the land would vacate the land, and the Israelites would inherit it peacefully. Rather, the census was intended to organize them for purposes of inheritance.

2. The Ibn Ezra (Bamidbar 1:52) suggests that the purpose of the divisions was to avoid confusion.

3. The Chizkuni (Bamidbar 2:2) says that the sign contained on all four flags spelled out the names of all the patriarchs.

4. See Ramban's introduction to Shmot; Ramban, Shmot 25:1; Ramban, Shmot 40:34.

5. See Rabenu Bahya, Bamidbar 7:87.

6. See Sefer Shnei Luhot haBrit, Parshat Naso, Or Torah note 6, who suggests that the four divisions represent the four-lettered name of God.

7. Below there would be 22,000 Levites who carry and protect the Mishkan in its travels; apparently this number of angels is directly parallel to the Levites. See Rabenu Bahya, Bamidbar 1:1.

8. The Midrash states that the Jews "desired" this arrangement. This is yet another translation of the word otot: rather than "insignia" or "sign", here the Midrash suggests that this word is derived from the root ovot connoting desire (as in ta'avah). See Rabbenu Bahya, Bamidbar 2:2, and Sefer Shnei Luhot Habrit, Parshat Naso, Torah Ohr note 8.

9. See Noam Elimelech Parshat Titzaveh.

10. See Talmud Bavli Chagigah 15a, and the text in the Ein Yakov.

11. Recanati, Bamidbar 2:2.

12. See Shem MiShmuel Bamidbar 5672.

13. See Shem miShmuel, Bamidbar 5673.

14. The Ariz"al (Rav Yitzchak Luria) in the Shaar haKavanot, Drushei Aleinu Leshabeah, drush 1) taught that each tribe had their own special way to pray, and each person's prayers are facilitated by the method of his or her tribe. In this context, the Ariz"al discusses our present situation: we no longer know what tribe each of us belongs to, and the unique prayers of each of each of the tribes is lost. Additionally, there are various traditions of prayer current today, and people may be confused as to what tradition to follow.

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