“אִישׁ עַל דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִנֶּגֶד סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ” “(Hashem told Moshe and Aharon) The Bnei Yisrael shall encamp, each man at his division according to the signs of their fathers’ house, at a distance surrounding the Mishkan shall they encamp” (Bamidbar 2:2). One of the themes of this week’s parshah is the system how the Jewish People traveled through the desert. Until this point, the people had been camping however and wherever they pleased, however, now that the Mishkan was built and the Nation was starting to travel towards Eretz Yisrael, a more precise system was set up. As we see in the pasuk, each person starting camping together with his tribe, which was based after whichever tribe his father was from. The pasuk also states that from now on, they would all travel and camp around the Mishkan. Each tribe had a flag signifying where they were camping and symbolizing their traits. On the Choshen Mishpat (Kohen Gadol’s breastplate), there was a stone for each tribe, each flag was the same color as its stone. Each flag also had a picture representing a certain attribute about the tribe.
The way in which they camped and traveled is well documented in the Torah. Based on the Ramban and Kli Yakar, let’s see the significance of how the tribes were set up. The Kli Yakar explains that there are four acquired levels which encompass a person’s full potential. They are (in order of how they are acquired) wisdom, good character traits, strength, and wealth. Chazal in Maseches Nedarim (38a) explain that the Shechinah rests only on these four people. For the person of good character traits they name a specific trait, humility. This is the greatest middah a person can have as it allows you to fully understand the Torah and accept all Hashem’s laws. The Ramban explains it a little differently, as we will see as we go through the camps, but they agree that the point of the four camps and their placements is to show how the Bnei Yisrael had each of these four levels and were therefore well deserving to have the Mishkan together with the presence of Hashem in their midst. Let’s get started.
There were three tribes camped on each side of the Mishkan with the Tribe of Levi camped within the box. The eastern camp, and the front group during travel, consisted of the tribes of Yehuda, Yissachar, and Zevulun. The Ramban explains that the direction East is significant because it is from where light comes into the world. These three tribes were all known for something which is known as “light”. The tribe of Yehuda is the tribe of the kingship, the House of King David is descended from Yehuda. The tribe of Yissachar is the tribe of Torah, the entire tribe of Yissachar did not work and studied Torah the whole day. Finally, Shevet (tribe) Zevulun was very wealthy. All three of these things are called “light” and therefore these tribes were on the side of the rising sun. The Kli Yakar says that all three of these tribes were known for Torah, which is the light of the world. Zevulun was a wealthy business tribe as well and they were responsible for supporting Shevet Yissachar. The reason this group traveled first is because the Jewish People do not fight with weapons, but rather with the zchus (merit) of Torah. There is no one better to have at the front of a hugh group of people to protect them. Torah, or wisdom, is the first and highest of the levels we spoke about that a person can reach.
The second group camped on the southern side and consisted of Shevet Reuven, Shimon, and Gad. The Ramban explains that the South is where the rain comes from. Rain is brought on by Hashem’s mercy, which in turn is brought around by the Jews doing Teshuvah, repenting and recommitting to Hashem. Teshuvah, the greatest middah a person can have since it shows a person’s love for Hashem and causes Hashem to do good for us. The Ramban says that Teshuvah is only second to Torah. One of the greatest examples in history of teshuvah is with Reuven repenting for mixing up his father’s bed (see Parshas Vayishlach), so there is no more fitting tribe for this spot. Together with Gad’s might, physically and spiritually, they provide bookends for Shevet Shimon to receive a kaparah (atonement) for his sin (found later on in Parshas Balak).
The Ramban’s explanation of Teshuvah is a substitution of the Kli Yakar’s second level for having the Shechinah in your midst, humility. Actually, if you think about it, they are very similar as you cannot really do real Teshuvah unless you humble yourself. And that is the explanation the Kli Yakar gives for why Reuven was in this group. In order to do complete Teshuvah, Reuven had to humble himself. Shimon’s tribe was mostly poor as they were the traveling teachers of Torah and lived off of whatever people gave them and there are also pesukim which speak about Gad’s charity. This middah was in the middle of the pack because the exact thing which these tribes wanted to avoid was the spotlight.
The third group, on the western side, consisted of Efraim, Menashe, and Binyamin, the three tribes of Rachel. Snow and hail come from the western side and the Ramban brings a midrash that these three tribes will be the ones to protect the nation from the snow. I believe the midrash means that when spiritual cold comes through, the spiritually mighty tribes of Rachel will protect the nation from the winds. For together with Torah and Teshuvah, Gevurah, might (and the third level), will strengthen your soul against the Yetzer Hara. The Kli Yakar adds that they camped on the western side, the side of the setting sun, to signify how your strength starts to wane from the time of birth until you leave this world just like the sun starts the setting process from the moment it rises.
The last group on the northern side was made up of Dan, Asher, and Naftali. According to Chazal, darkness comes from the North, just as Shevet Dan brought darkness to the world through their making idols (see Sefer Melachim Aleph). Hashem therefore placed Shevet Asher with him since Asher was the tribe which made olive oil (once they entered Eretz Yisrael) and could “light up” the darkness. Shevet Naftali was a very much blessed tribe as evidenced by the portion they received in Eretz Yisrael which was very beautiful and fertile. They were added as another counteraction to the darkness brought on by Dan. The Ramban explains that they traveled last to show that anyone who serves Avodah Zarah (False Gods) only moves backwards. The Kli Yakar finishes up his four levels by pointing out how each of these tribes was very wealthy. Since this is the last level, they were in the back. He also says how Yehuda and Dan are both referred to as lions at separate times and are therefore the tribes in the front and back as those are the most important positions in battle.
What comes out of all this? That every little detail is from Hashem. Even something as mundane as the order of traveling was put in a certain order to teach us something and to show how holy the nation was that they were worthy of having Hashem live among them. How were they worthy? The Torah shows how they had these four middos which are the key to becoming a complete person. May we all reach that level.