A new sefer begins this week with Parshas Bamidbar. Chazal refer to this sefer as Sefer Hapekudim, the Book of Countings, in reference to the two separate censuses of Bnei Yisrael that take place in this sefer. The first one takes place right at the beginning of this week’s parsha.
The census in this week’s parsha had two purposes. Besides for counting the members of the nation, it also informed each tribe that they would now be traveling and camping in specific formation, and where each tribe would be placed. This would encourage feelings of pride among the individual tribes and also present the entire nation in a prominent and dignified fashion. Chazal tell us that each tribe had a flag with their own color and symbol, which they would place above their encampment for all to see. (See Bamidbar 1:52.)
Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky asks a very simple question. At this point, it had been a year since the Bnei Yisrael left Mitzrayim, and they had already done some traveling in the desert. Furthermore, Bnei Yisrael left Mitzrayim as a mighty force, not slinking away in the night like thieves, so they were already a dignified group. So how come Hashem waited an entire year to place Bnei Yisrael in this formation? He could have done this before they even left Mitzrayim!
He explains that with the increase in tribal pride, there would be a natural drop in national brotherhood. Until this point in time, the Bnei Yisrael had considered themselves a large family, all descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. Each tribe’s flag, with their different color and symbol, represented different qualities and highlighted the different strengths and experiences of each tribe. Suddenly, for the first time, marked differences were emphasized among Bnei Yisrael. They realized that they had the ability to emphasize different ideas within their families. They each had their own pursuits they could now prioritize. By encouraging this message of tribal unity, they moved away from being a large family and instead became a nation of twelve separate tribes. While this division was only for positive reasons, it was a division nonetheless.
While Hashem wanted this separation of the tribes, He wanted to maintain that sense of national unity as well. Therefore, at this time of separation, there needed to be a new idea to unite the nation too. That idea was the Mishkan. The Mishkan was located in the center of the encampment, with the tribes split into sets of three on each of the four sides. Having a central focus for the nation, where each tribe had equal access, which they could all place as the primary point of emphasis in their lives, was the common denominator needed to maintain a national spirit of togetherness while still expanding tribal pride. Therefore, Bnei Yisrael could not be given the flags right when they left Mitzrayim; they did not yet have that common idea that could keep them together as a nation. Once the Mishkan was complete, the time was right for tribal growth to begin.
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