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The following article is reprinted with permission from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.
The first portion of the Book of B’midbar is also called B’midbar; it begins with a census of the adult men of each tribe, and a description of the order of the Israelite camp by tribes. The descendants of Levi are not included with the others, as they are responsible for the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and thus have a special status within the nation. Within the tribe of Levi, the family of Kohath has certain unique duties pertaining to the vessels in the Mishkan.
"The LORD said to Moses and Aaron: ‘The Israelites are to camp around the Tent of Meeting some distance from it, each person under his standard with the banners of his family’" (Numbers 2:1-2).
The first few chapters of B’midbar describe the ordering of the Israelite nation into various camps as they travel through the desert. These camps had the tribes grouped together around the Mishkan, several on each side, so the Mishkan was in the middle and the tribes were arranged around it.
Many commentators understand this as a military arrangement–Israel was being arranged like an army into divisions and units, each with its insignia and internal organization. One commentator quoted by Nehama Leibowitz suggests that the emphasis on organization was to provide a contrast with the people’s former existence as slaves; now, instead of being a rag-tag bunch of former slaves (and thus an "easy mark" for belligerent nations), they presented themselves as a tightly organized army in their travels.
Several Hasidic commentators see in our verse a hint of how Jews must seek to understand their own, unique purpose in life. For example:
. . . each person under his standard with the banners of his family: Every Jew must know and think that he is unique in the world, and there was never anyone exactly like him–if there were someone like him (before), there would have been no need for you to come into the world. Every single person is someone new in the world, and it is her duty to improve all her ways, until all of Israel has attained perfection (Beit Aharon, quoted in Itturei Torah).
This commentator seems to be exploring the tension between each person finding his or her own, personal "standard," or flag, and also being grouped into a larger social unit under the "banner of his family."
This is a fundamental tension in contemporary Judaism: Each of us must develop our own, personal journey of Jewish spirituality, and yet we are not alone in doing so. We are inheritors of a larger Jewish tradition, with all of its teachings and customs and different interpretations. There’s no such thing as a Jew who just makes up a brand new Judaism for themselves, but rather we always exist as individuals in a creative, covenantal relationship with the larger Jewish community.
This creative dialectic between individual and community works in both ways: not only does the individual have to find their own "flag" within the larger Jewish tradition, but we must also recognize that the Jewish community is not complete, as it were, unless people are finding their own, comfortable place within it.
Judaism is not "one size fits all!" One person may become zealously observant of ritual practices, another person may devote all her energy to Judaism’s vision of social justice, a third may find that studying sacred texts is the proper "flag" for his living Judaism.
As our commentary points out, it is only when each person finds their own "flag," or personal mission within the broader Jewish framework, that the Jewish people as a whole can find its "perfection," or ultimate potential.
The visual metaphor of the Book of Numbers is striking: Each person finds his or her place in a particular camp, and the camps find proper the relationship to each other–and only then can the entire people move forward, with the Presence of God "dwelling" in the middle.
I’d even like to propose Parshat B’midbar as a model for true Jewish pluralism: each individual finding his or her unique mission within the broadest Jewish framework, organized with like-minded people into sacred organizations, and each person and each community seen as a necessary, equal component of the whole. Only when we see that different people and different communities have their own sacred purpose can we move together on our journey.
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