Bamidbar: Organized Chaos

If you had to choose an English name for the book of Bamidbar, it would probably not be the same as the name King James gave it—Numbers. A more reasonable name for it would be Places. The book of Bamidbar, which literally means “”in the desert””, is filled with places. Not only names of locations. The book is filled with directions of who stands where and when, who belongs at what place, and what the total numbers of people in any given place are. Even as the children of Israel wander in the midst of the desert, circling around in a way that defies navigational strategy, they are set up in perfect order. We are taught:

“”God spoke to Moses and Aaron saying: The children of Israel shall encamp each man by his division with the flagstaffs of their fathers’fathers’ house; some distance from the Tent of Meeting they shall encamp. Those camping in front, to the east, were the legions under the division of the camp of Judah. … Camping next to him, the tribe of Issachar; The legions under the division of the camp of Reuben were to the south…”” (Bamidbar, chapter 3)

Astonishing! 

The saying goes: “”a place for everything and everything in its place””. In the book of Bamidbar it seems like despite there not being a place for anything, everything is in its place. The Torah outlines who is to be in what place, who is in charge of each tribe, who is in charge of each every side of the camp, how many members each tribe has, and what the total number of each of the four sides of the camp was. Where was all this taking place? While wondering in circles in the nooks and crannies of an inhabited desert. 

Why?

Why was God so particular about where exactly each and every person should be? Why was it so important for each person to camp with their own tribe or for every tribe to be in its assigned side of the camp? 

Why does the Torah which is usually so sparing in its words extend so many verses on the how and where of the way the Israelites camped in the desert although this camping was only for the next thirty-eight years—until the Israelites entered the land of Israel?

Furthermore, since this all took place before the sin of the spies (see Bamidbar 13), a sin for which God has told the Jewish people they will have to wander in the desert for forty years before entering the land of Israel, the current arrangement could have been for just a few more days. Why does the Torah invest so much in these instructions, which were to land just a few days? Why does the Torah devote attention to a matter that was meant to last so little time?

To answer this, we must ask why it is that people take wedding pictures. Have you ever seen a parent or grandparent’s wedding picture? There they are standing and smiling, looking so at peace with this happy day, and beaming with joy in love. How much does this picture reflect the reality of their day back then? It is most likely they had a remarkably busy and stressful day getting all dressed and ready, making sure they have all the right clothing, getting to the wedding hall, and greeting family and friends. Following the arrival and wedding pictures, they will most likely have a festive evening dancing with friends, smiling to everyone who came to participate in their celebration and take part in the festive meal that is being served. Are those calm and content wedding pictures a false staged moment? Are they an ingenuine reflection of false reality? Is the calming ambiance created by those still captures of a moment just synthetic illusions of the broader picture? 

Of course not. 

Wedding pictures capture the love and affection that couples chart as a golden standard they would like to live by. They are cherished expressions of the couple’s feelings to one another; something they can reflect on for the rest of their lives as the moment they would like to live by. 

This is exactly what was happening in the desert once the Jews left Egypt. A nation of slaves that could be relocated, broken up, and reorganized in a moments notice, finally has a place. They are reminded that even as you are in the desert chaos, you can be governed by internal order. Before entering the promised land, the Israelites get to take a beautiful “wedding picture” in which they learn to recognize their interconnectedness, their neighbors, who there are, and how much they belong. 

Rabbi Eldad Yonah, a thinker and a writer from Israel, points out that the reason for the Jews camping in the way, surrounding the Tabernacle, is so that even as the enter the land of Israel and go each on their way, their epicenter must always be the Mishkan—the Tabernacle. Communal and National life must always hinge on our center of gravity—the Ark with the Tablets in it. Camping in the desert reminded us that no matter how chaotic life can—and will—become, we must always reflect back to our national wedding picture; we must always see ourselves as one harmonious nation with sanctity at our epicenter.  

It follows then that the Jews should all camp together as one united family. This is not what happens:

“”God spoke to Moses and Aaron saying: The children of Israel shall encamp each man by his division with the flagstaffs of their fathers’fathers’ house; some distance from the Tent of Meeting they shall encamp.

The great medieval commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yizchaki, also known as Rashi, explains: 

“”Each of the four sides of the camp shall have its own flagstaff, with a colored flag hanging on it; the color of one being different from the color of any other. The color of each one was like the color of the precious stone of the tribe, set in the breastplate [worn by the Kohen Gadol], and in this way, everyone could recognize his division.””

Why?

Is it not important for all of the Israelites to unite at this very pivotal moment before they come into the land of Israel? Why divide them in this way?

In an ever-increasingly divided and divisive world, we sometimes think that harmony comes when different people all agree. The lesson of the Mishkan is that there can be harmony in chaos. We can all belong to our own tribe and be different; we must also remember what brings us together. Our day to day lives can be different, and that is ok. So long as we all share a collective commitment to God and our fundamental principles, we can live in beautiful harmony. 

Rarely if ever, will life be peaceful and organized. Chaos, surprises, and confusion are inevitable. Like a wedding photo, by focusing in on a moment in our history in which we all camped in an organized fashion around the Tabernacle, the Torah is reminding us what life ought to look like. By shaping the center of our gravity around sanctity, recognizing we can be of different tribes yet are committed to a shared narrative, we are taught how to conduct our lives in times of chaos. We learn to live in harmony with those who are different from us while focusing on what we can agree on. In a world with ever-growing chaos and division, may we recognize our ability to harmonize amidst the chaos, and show respect despite our differences. Shabbat Shalom. 

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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