After receiving the Torah and setting up the culture and society of the Bnei Yisrael is Sefers Shemos and Vayikra, Sefer Bamidbar begins the process of the nation traveling to Eretz Yisrael. And what better way for the Sefer to begin than to describe the camping method. The Torah details exactly how the nation camped and traveled, the process that the nation went through to shift from camping mode to traveling mode, the formation of the tribe during these, even the exact order that they traveled in, as directed by Hashem to Moshe.
They encamped in a box formation, three tribes together on each side, with the Mishkan in the middle surrounded by Shevet Levi. The tribes of Yehuda, Yissachar, and Zevulun were together in front (on the eastern side). Reuven, Shimon, and Gad on their right, to the south of the Mishkan. In the back to the west were Efraim, Menashe, and Binyamin. To the north on the left side of the formation were Dan, Asher, and Naftali. Chazal tell us that Yaakov Avinu determined this formation. When he died, he instructed his sons to position themselves in this manner when they carried his body for burial in Eretz Yisrael. What was the reason for this formation? Why were these specific tribes paired up with each other and why on those specific sides?
Rav Hirsh gives an explanation in his classic manner. Let’s begin with the front group. Each of the three shevatim on that side figured prominently in the material and spiritual success of the nation. Yehuda was the royal tribe, Yissachar was responsible for constant Torah study, and Zevulun was the most prominent commercial tribe. (All these ideas are found in their blessings given to them by Yaakov in Bereishis 49, and brought into reality through the remainder of NaCH.) So right at the front of the nation were the most vital pieces to their survival, the ruling party, Torah study, and financial support.
The two side groups each contained an important factor in the protection of the nation. The tribes of Shimon and Gad were known as fierce warriors, and Reuven was known for having a softer character. These traits balanced each other out, and allowed this group to be the physical protectors of the nation. Dan, Asher, and Naftali were all known for traits that would help grow and develop the culture of the nation. Dan was known for quick thinking, Asher for refined taste, and Naftali for eloquence. (As we mentioned before, these characteristics are all based on Yaakov’s blessings to his children in Bereishis 49.)
When it comes to the back group, Rav Hirsh admits that it’s not as clear to him as the others. However, he focuses on the bracha Yaakov gave Menashe and Efraim in Bereishis 48 that they should both become great and mighty tribes. This greatness and might was why they camped opposite Yehuda, not just practically as extra protection in the rear of the group, but symbolically as well. Later on in history, the tribes of Yosef would break away from the Kingdom of Yehuda, denying his leadership of Bnei Yisrael. Instead of complementing Yehuda with their greatness, they instead tried to tear his greatness away from him. Therefore, they were positioned opposite him in the back.
Similarly, the first King of Yisrael, Shaul, was from the tribe of Binyamin. Even though he didn’t steal any kingdom from Yehuda as there was no king yet in his day, because Binyamin did produce a king, perhaps that’s why they was placed in this same grouping.
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