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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

Parshas Bamidbor

Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon saying, "The Bnei Yisrael shall encamp, each man by his banner according to the insignias of their fathers' household, at a distance surrounding the Ohel Moed shall they encamp." (2:1,2)

An inconsistency seems to be manifest in the text of this pasuk. Hashem enjoins Klal Yisrael to camp "mineged," at a distance, and "saviv", surrounding. Are they to camp mineged or saviv? If it is opposite it is not close. The Satmar Rebbe, zl, cites his father in his sefer, "Yetev Lev." He explains this apparent contradiction in light of Rashi's interpretation of the phrase, "b'osos l'bais avosam," "according to the insignias of their fathers' household," as a reference to the signs that Yaakov gave his sons, regarding the formation of his sons when they were to serve as his pallbearers. When Yaakov placed Efraim before Menashe -- the younger broter before the older brother -- he was apparently indicating that his perspective was oriented to the future. Efraim would one day succeed Menashe in spiritual status and prestige. Yaakov subsequently selected Efraim to precede Menashe.

With this idea in mind, we can understand the Torah's intention in using two terms that seem to contradict each other. In the Talmud Megillah 29, Chazal state that one day the Houses of Study and Worship situated in Babylon will be reinstated in Eretz Yisrael. Indeed, in the Midrash it is stated that the future Bais Hamikdash will be the size of Yerushalayim. The Maharshah attributes this to the fact that one day all of the shuls will combine with the Bais Hamikdash. In other words, the shuls and yeshivos in galus, exile, are considered part of the future Bais Hamikdash. What an incredible statement! The Batei Medrash and Batei Knesses of today are the Bais Hamikdash of the future! This should give us something to think about the next time we enter a makom Torah.

Thus, while the m'komos ha'Torah of the Diaspora may presently be "distant" in a spiritual and physical manner from the Bais Hamikdash, if we ascribe to Yaakov Avinu's perspective of looking to the future to become the present, then what is far is really near. This is why the Torah says each person rested nearby the Mishkan while it says they were m'neged, distant. They rested "b'osos l'bais avosom." according to the charge and legacy of their ancestor Yaakov, who integrated the future with the present.

We may suggest an alternative reason for the discrepancy of the words describing Klal Yisrael's geographic placement vis-a-vis the Ohel Moed. Rashi interprets the word "mineged" as implying "distant from." We find in the Mishnayos Peah, Chazal enumerate a number of wonderful mitzvos which focus on social, humanistic and religious areas of communal life. The Mishnah concludes with the words,"V'talmud Torah k'neged kulam," "and/but the study of Torah is greater than/supercedes all of them." We are confronted with a textual question: If the purpose of this Mishnah is to convey to us that Torah study is greater than all these wonderful mitzvos, then rather than use the word "k'neged," which is usually translated as "opposite," they should have said, "oleh al kulam," goes above them. Why use a word which has a contradictory connotation? My rebbe, Horav Chaim Mordechai Katz, zl, explained that the Mishnah uses the word k'neged, opposite, by design. Chazal are teaching us that every mitzvah or good deed, regardless of its noble intentions and social benefits, must stand up to the Torah's purview, to its criteria for establishing the veracity of this endeavor. It must be stood up opposite the Torah, to see what the Torah "says" about the manner in which we perform this mitzvah, our true goals and objectives. Only after it has passed the Torah's approval does it become a mitzvah. A similar thought may be expressed in regard to those people situating themselves in close proximity to the Ohel Moed. People may say, and even think, they are doing the right thing. They may believe that they perform mitzvos with the greatest integrity. Their actions and intentions must be stood up opposite, k'neged, the Torah, however, to determine if they are really misaviv, close by or mineged, far removed from the Torah. In other words, it is possible to be close by and actually be distant simultaneously.

Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon saying: "The Bnei Yisrael shall encamp, each man by his banner according to the insignias of their fathers' household." (2:1,2)

The Midrash discusses the remarkable level of sanctity achieved by Klal Yisrael as a result of their degalim, banners. Indeed, Chazal cite a dialogue between the gentile nations in which they attempt to dissuade Klal Yisrael from maintaining their allegiance to Hashem. Klal Yisrael's response to the gentiles' negativity was the beauty and sanctity of the degalim that evoked their pride in being Jewish. We must endeavor to understand what it is about the degalim that engendered such feelings of self - esteem and pride.

Horav Mordechai Rogov, zl, offers two responses to this question. He explains that Torah and mitzvos are not merely religious observances and traditions that we keep; they comprise our life! They are our standard that we display with pride and dignity. Every tribe presented his individual banner, his banner of Torah and mitzvah, proud to be a Jew and prepared to offer his life for its observance. No one can take away our banner of Judaism.

We find a similar thought expressed in regard to the words of the Midrash on Megillas Esther. In Esther, 4:5 the pasuk states, "Esther called to learn what this was about and why." Chazal explain that Esther questioned the origin of this tzarah, distress/anguish. Perhaps it was because the Jewish people had denied the concept of "zeh Keili v'anveihu," "This is my G-d, and I will beautify Him." Why would Esther attribute the tragic decree to annihilate the Jews to a lack of beautifying mitzvos? Hidur mitzvah, going out of our way to beautify mitzvos, should not be a reason for such a terrible decree. Would it not have made sense to ascribe the churban, destruction, to a lack of mitzvah observance? Horav Rogov explains that once Klal Yisrael lose their sense of pride in mitzvos, once they do not give proper honor and beauty to the mitzvos, they will soon refrain from actual mitzvah observance. If we do not raise up our banner of Judaism with pride, we will soon reject it - totally. The Jewish People respond to the gentile nations: "The Torah is our banner; it is our pride and self-esteem. Nothing that you do or offer can encourage us to rescind our commitment.

Horav Rogov suggests a second area of significance which is indicated by the degalim. Klal Yisrael takes pride in the fact that each tribe maintained its own banner, fulfilling the goals and objectives that each individual degel mandates. Each man, each tribe, accepted his banner's mandate with enthusiasm. They did not dissent their position; they did not protest. They did not attempt to exchange their responsibility for that of another Jew's. There was no jealousy; there was no envy. Each person performed what was expected of him and did not attempt to infringe upon anyone else. Horav Rogov cites a noteworthy story that occurred with the Bais HaLevi, which reinforces this idea. One erev Yom Kippur after Maariv, the Bais HaLevi noted that one of the community's wealthy men remained afterwards to recite Tehillim. One would think that this act of devotion was to be commended. The Brisker Rav, however, did not seem to think so. He went over to the man and asked him, "My friend, what is the punishment for a soldier who deserts the army?" "He is put to death," the man quickly responded. "What about an infantryman who decides one day to leave his post and join the cavalry?" "He is also a deserter and deserves a similar punishment," answered the man emphatically. The Brisker Rav looked with penetrating eyes at the wealthy man and said, "You are such a man! Hashem has various divisions of Jews. There are foot soldiers who do not have the ability to support others. They must go by foot from door to door seeking support for their families. There are also the cavalry who ride upon horses and in fancy chariots. They are the ones who are mandated to support and sustain others. Now, on erev Yom Kippur, is a time for someone of your financial capacity to be out on the streets, seeking out people in need whom you can help. You should not have the strength left to sit down and recite Tehillim. If you do - then obviously you deserted your company. You reneged your responsibility. Leave the Tehillim for somebody else, while you go out and perform your duty!"

In Pirkei Avos, Chazal teach, "Who is a strong man? One who has defeated his evil inclination." The Bais HaLevi notes that Chazal say his yetzer hora, evil inclination, not someone else's. The rich man must overcome the challenge of not giving tzedakah, while the poor man must defeat the yetzer hora that downplays his recitation of Tehillim. The wealthy man who performs the poor man's task is only deferring to his yetzer hora's "suggestion."

So did they encamp by their standards, and so did they journey, each one according to his families, by the house of his fathers. (2:34)

Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, explains the practical/symbolic meaning behind the formation of the tribes as they camped and traveled. In the front, to the east, under the degel of Yehudah, were the tribes of Yehudah, Yissachar and Zevullun. To the right, in the south, under the degel of Reuven, were Reuven, Shimon and Gad. To the left, in the north, under the degel of Dan, were the tribes of Dan, Asher and Naftali. Last, in the back, opposite Shevet Yehudah, under the degel of Efraim, were Efraim, Menashe, and Binyamin. Each of the three tribes which form the leading camp is characterized for its material and spiritual attributes, thereby maintaining a balance of sorts.

Yaakov Avinu visualized Yehudah as the most prominent tribe, symbolized by his shevet, scepter, and mechokek, leadership in Torah law. Yissachar was the tribe devoted to agriculture, who consequently had leisure time for study. Zevullun was devoted to commerce, but also seems to be a leader in cultivating literature. Hence, in the leading tribes, the areas in which the material and spiritual welfare of the nation were to depend, were united. The scepter and the law, agriculture and science, commerce and literature. These two factors, the spiritual and material, combined in the leading camp and separated right and left in the subordinate camps behind it. The camp to its right consisted of Reuven, the bechor, firstborn. He was endowed with the intelligence and sensitivity for what is right and just, yet with a softness of character which ultimately denied him the firmness necessary for leadership. In conjunction with him were Shimon, quick and impulsive, the avenger of honor, and Gad, who struck swift as an arrow to avenge any unjustified attack. In other words, on Yehudah's right there was the courage and temperament to ward off humiliation and attack - but under the aegis of moderacy and calm.

To his left, he was flanked by Dan, the tribe of deft cleverness, the consummate politician; Asher, representing refinement of taste; and Naftali, noted for his eloquence. While on the right , Reuven represented strength and force, Dan on the left symbolized a rich development in the area of culture.

On the side opposite to the eastern camp, to the west, were the tribes of Efraim, Menashe and Benyamin. Efraim and Menashe essentially represented Shevet Yosef. Based upon Yaakov Avinu's blessing to his sons prior to his demise, Horav Hirsch suggests that Efraim and Menashe were to develop greatness and might. Bravery would be their primary attribute, which would be a wonderful supplement to Yehudah in the east in terms of national welfare. Regrettably, history indicates that instead of complementing Yehudah, the house of Yosef opposed their leadership, catalyzing a tragic rift in Klal Yisrael. Instead of planting their degel/standard behind Yehudah, they chose to go to the forefront and claim leadership. When they broke the G-d-given formation, they brought ruin upon themselves and all the other tribes that had attached themselves to them.

Count the Bnei Levi (according to their fathers' household, according to their families) every male from one month of age and up shall you count them. Moshe counted them according to the word of Hashem as he had been commanded. (3:15,16)

Rashi cites a dialogue between Moshe Rabbeinu and Hashem. Moshe asked the Almighty, "How do I enter the tents to determine the number of infants in their home?" It would have been improper for Moshe to enter the Levite tents to count the number of suckling infants. Hashem responded, "You do yours and I will do mine." Moshe would go to the entrance of each tent and wait outside while the Shechinah preceded him, after which a Heavenly voice would proclaim the number of babies in the tent. We must understand how it was that Moshe decided to do things "his way." What prompted him to imply that he could not enter the tents of women with infants? Hashem instructed him to take a census; he should assume his responsibility and do what must be done!

Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, posits that the middah, character trait, of derech eretz, proper manners and behavior, is an integral component in Torah study. Human decency and moral behavior demand that one does not enter a private home where there is a nursing mother and child. Consequently, this cannot be Hashem's command. If it is against the rules of derech eretz, then obviously Hashem meant for Moshe to count the infants from outside the tent. Proof of this thesis is the fact that the Torah recognizes Moshe's act as consistent with Hashem's command. Although we do not find Hashem commanding him to remain outside, if it is not derech eretz to enter, then it is as if he were commanded to remain outside.

Perhaps if we would all realize that derech eretz is not simply something we learn about in a mussar sefer, but rather an integral component of our Torah study and achievement, we would present ourselves in a different manner and view others in a different light.


1. Why was Shevet Levi not included in the present census?
2. What is derived from the fact that the Torah includes Aharon's sons among Moshe Rabbeinu's offspring?
3. From what age were the Leviim counted?
4. Bnei Kehas camped near to Shevet ______________. This "relationship" was the cause of a tragic punishment for a number of prominent members of this tribe. What was it?
5. A. Who carried the holy vessels of the Mishkan? B. Were they permitted to gaze upon them?
6. How many coverings did the Aron Hakodesh have?


1. A. It is proper that Hashem's "legion," namely Shevet Levi, should be counted separately.
B. Hashem "saw" that all those who were included in this census would perish in the wilderness as a result of the chet meraglim. He did not want Shevet Levi to be included in this punishment, because they were not involved in the Golden Calf.
2. One who teaches his friend's sons Torah is considered as if he had fathered them.
3. From the age of one month and older.
4. Reuven . The controversy of Korach, who was from Bnei Kehas.
5. A. Bnei Kehas. B. No
6. Three

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