Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20 )
According to the Midrash, Moshe was concerned about the flag system Hashem had told him to institute. He was afraid it would bring trouble and lead to “divisions and disputes among the tribes.” He was afraid that if he told this tribe to travel on the west, they would insist on traveling on the east, that those he sent to the north would clamor for the southern flank. Whatever he did would not be good enough. The tribes would bicker and fight with each other as they jockeyed for position, and strife would reign in the Jewish encampment.
But Hashem reassured him that all would go well. Yaakov had already established the pattern of the travel formations by assigning specific positions to his sons when he gave instructions for his funeral procession from Egypt to Canaan. The positions around Yaakov’s coffin were the same as those around the Mishkan. Therefore, the people were already accustomed to their assigned positions.
But questions still remain. Why would the people be willing to accept formations based on funeral formations hundreds of years in the past? How would the pattern of Yaakov’s funeral procession prevent dissension and strife in the travel formation in the desert?
Rav Mordechai Rogov explains that human nature is very sensitive to the environment. When things are going well in society, when peace and prosperity reign in the land, people are more inclined to be civil, even genteel to each other. But when the going gets tough, the veneer of politeness thins very quickly. Nerves fray. Tempers grow short. Before you know it, all civility is gone, and people are at each other’s throats.
Moshe was concerned that the Jewish people would not react well to the rigors of traveling through the desert, a place rife with feral animals and ringed by hostile nations. Despite the protection of the Cloud Pillars, they would feel apprehensive. This would lead them to discard their civil manners and jockey for better positions. It’s one thing to be civil in ordinary times and quite another in times of war and famine.
You don’t need to worry, Hashem assured Moshe. The death of Yaakov was also a crisis for the fledgling Jewish nations. It could easily have led to bickering and dissension among the brothers. Under pressure of the situation, they could have jostled for positions around the coffin. But Yaakov gave them specific instructions about their positions around his coffin, and by following those instructions, they learned to get along in times of crisis. This lesson sank deep into their consciousness and became part of the national character. Therefore, Moshe, you don’t have to worry that the Jewish people will break down and fight among themselves. They have been conditioned to keep to a higher standard. Not only now but also throughout history, throughout the worst pogroms and inquisitions and massacres, the Jewish spirit will retain its refinement and nobility. You don’t have to worry, Moshe.
We have all heard many stories about the conduct of Jews during the Holocaust, the quiet heroism, the indomitable spirit. There is one simple story I heard not long ago. It is not especially dramatic, but it illustrates the point of the Midrash very sharply.
Many Holocaust memoirs devote an inordinate amount of attention to bread, because at the time, bread consumed all their thinking hours. To a concentration-camp inmate, a piece of bread was life itself. Each inmate was given a piece of bread once a day, and he had to decide what to do with it. What should he do? Should he eat the bread right away or should he perhaps nibble at it all day? Should he save it until he is very tired and hungry at the end of the day so that he would not have to go to sleep on an empty stomach? Difficult questions. Weighty questions.
A Jew in a concentration camp was summoned to the commandant’s office. This could mean only one thing. His time was up.
Every Jew was aware that the moment of death could come at any time, and this Jew was no different. He sighed and said Vidui, making peace with his Maker. Then he exchanged his clothes with the other inmates. He gave his shoes to a man whose feet were swaddled in rags. He gave his coat to one friend. And the precious piece of bread in his pocket, the piece of life he was saving all day, what was the point in wasting a good piece of bread when he had maybe minutes to live? He gave the bread to another friend and set out for the commandant’s office.
Wonder of wonders, the commandant needed something trivial and had no intention of killing him, at least at that particular time. As the man walked back to his barracks, he felt certain he would get his clothing back, but what about the bread? The friend to whom he had given it could easily say he had already eaten it.
In the barracks, the first person to greet him was that friend. “You’re alive!” he shouted ecstatically. “They didn’t kill you. Here, take back your piece of bread. You must eat it; it is yours. Oh, thank Heaven, you are still among the living, not among the dead.”
Where does a Jew get the strength to behave like an angel when he is being treated like an animal? It dates back to Yaakov’s funeral procession from Egypt to Canaan, when his sons learned to conduct themselves on the highest levels of humanity in the midst of terrible tragedy.