A Map Of Pluralism
The arrangement of the Israelites around the Tabernacle, as individuals and as a community, provides us with a model for pluralism.
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.