The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting, some distance from it. (B’midbar 2:1-2).
I stare into the wilderness
where grains of sand blown by the wind
drift freely by on sun-splashed dunes.
I turn my gaze towards the camp –
the throng resolves: twelve tribes aligned;
each stately banner waves above.
Each patriarchal family
on designated territory, is marked by flags
that flail, bright-hued, against the pearly sky.
Within the intricate design, of shadow
and of light, each soul must seek its certain place
and write its letter in the scroll.
Parashat B’midbar contains an elaborate description of the arrangement of the tribes into camps, as they advance through the wilderness. They were aligned on four sides of a square, three tribes to a side, with the Mishkan in the middle, each tribe being equidistant from it. In her book, Studies in Bamidbar, Nehama Leibowitz notes that several commentators derive that this is a military blueprint – organisation into troops and divisions, with standards and pennants. She cites the Rashbam (who consistently brings out the simple literal meaning of the text (the peshat)) and holds here that this is indeed military preparation for the conquest of the Land. She also notes that Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto (the Shadal) (1800 – 1865, Italy) teaches that the idea was that the people should be divided into groups with their standards so that they would not appear like a bunch of runaway slaves, but rather a people prepared for battle.
However, in a commentary on Parashat Bamidbar, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/a-map-of-pluralism/ Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger notes that several Chasidic commentators explain the verse above rather differently. He cites the Beit Aharon who says, “Each person with his standard under banners of his ancestral house [means that] every Israelite must know and think that he is unique in the world, and there was never yet anyone like him in the word; because if there had already been someone like him, there would have been no further need of him [to come into the world]. And truly every single person is someone new in the world, and he has to perfect his attributes and his [special part of] Torah which belong to [speak to] his soul, until all the worlds have attained perfection by Israel in its entirety.” Rabbi Loevinger notes, “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.”” He continues, “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.”
Rabbi Loevinger sees this tension between individual and community as a two-way street: just as the individual has to find his place, his “flag” in the larger picture, so too, the picture is incomplete unless individuals are finding their own place within it. He adds, “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 the proper relationship to each other – and only then can the entire people move forward, with the Presence of God “dwelling” in the middle.”
It is taught in the Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 34a) that there are seventy faces to the Torah. In his book, Torah Through Time: Understanding Bible Commentary from the Rabbinic Period, Shai Cherry quotes Gershom Scholem who explains the teaching of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Ari: “[In] Lurianic Kabbalah every word of the Torah has 600,000 “faces” that is layers of meaning or entrances, one for each of the children of Israel who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. Each face is turned toward only one of them; he alone can see it and decipher it. Each man has his own unique access to revelation. Authority no longer resides in a single unmistakeable “meaning” of the Divine communication but in its infinite capacity for taking on new forms. (Gershom Scholem paraphrasing Isaac Luria the leading Kabbalist of the 16th century.)”
The Midrash (B’midbar Rabbah 2:13) recounts the famous teaching that just as there were six hundred thousand Jews at Sinai, there are six hundred thousand letters in the Torah. In a commentary on Parashat B’midbar, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=12032, Rabbi Adam Greenwald observes that this Midrash has evoked countless sermons about the value of the individual, for just as a Torah is only complete and usable if all its letters are intact, so too our community needs each of us. However, he notes that there is a serious problem with it. He says, “The Torah does not contain 600,000 letters. In fact, not even close to it! The Torah contains just about half that number, at 304,805. While the rabbis lacked the sophisticated software that can produce an accurate count like that in seconds, they surely knew that their count was off by an entire order of magnitude.” So he wonders what this Midrash comes to teach us. Rabbi Greenwald continues, “The mystical tradition has long taught that the black letters of the Torah scroll only make up half the story; the other half – and potentially the more revealing truths – are contained in the white spaces that accompany each letter. Just as in conversation where what is not said is often more important than what is actually spoken aloud, the white spaces that surround the black letters are equally vital to understanding what Torah is trying to teach us. Counting the white spaces, along with the black letters, we arrive at 600,000 – and the Midrash is saved!”
But Rabbi Greenwald is still unhappy. He notes that there is an even more perplexing problem with this text. He says, that the Torah’s record of 600,000 people who stood at Sinai refers only to the men! He adds, “As feminist critics like Judith Plascow, Rachel Adler, and others have taught us – a closer look at the text reveals that twice that number participated in Revelation and twice that number marched from the mountain. The Torah records only the names and stories of the men, the women who stood aside them have been erased from our counting. Again, half is visible and half, invisible.”
So he concludes, “Just as our understanding of Torah is only complete when we count both the black letters and the white spaces, our understanding of ourselves is only complete when we notice the whole community. That means really seeing those who have traditionally counted and those who have been excluded, who have historically faded into the background like the white spaces.
“Let’s teach our eyes to see the whole of what is in front of us, both light and dark, both seen and unseen.”