Midrash and Monticello

Bemidbar By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jun 3, 2000 / 5760 | Torah Commentary

A few years ago, my wife and I took a trip to Monticello, Jefferson’s estate in Virginia. And while the splendor of the estate is reflected by a magnificently furnished mansion, extensive library, and extraordinary mountain backdrop, I found myself impressed by something far less grand: the vegetable gardens. They were exquisitely arranged. Each vegetable plant, as well as each species, had its place in the garden. Beefsteak tomatoes were planted in a wholly separate row from the plum tomatoes; hybrid peas blossomed in splendid isolation from the green beans; and red cabbage sprouted at a comfortable distance from its green counterpart. Every vegetable had its proper place and marker, such that each could easily be identified.

That experience has given me new insight into this week’s parasha, Parashat Bemidbar.

The second chapter of the Book of Numbers extensively details the geographical placement of the tribes in their encampment. God speaks to Moses and Aaron declaring, “The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance” (Numbers 2:2). The parasha then goes on to describe the exact location of each of the tribes. While the Tabernacle stood in the center, the tribes encamped around the periphery: Asher, Dan, and Naphtali in the north; Issachar, Judah, and Zebulun in the east; Gad, Reuben, and Simeon in the south; and Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh in the west. Not only did the Israelites stand in their proper place, but, as already mentioned in the second verse, each stood with its distinctive banner. As the midrash in Bemidbar Rabbah 2:7 states, “each tribe had its prince and its standard, whose color corresponded to the color of the tribe’s stone in the breastplate of Aaron and the ephod.” The tribes were impeccably organized around the Tabernacle.

Why the need for such placement? What symbolism stands behind such order? Two details prove significant.

The first is the placement of the Tabernacle in the midst of the tribes. The Presence of God, as represented by the Tabernacle, stands at the center of the community of Israelites. This is the focal point of Israelite devotional life. The physical setup of the community reflects the spiritual life of the community. Each is a reflection of the other. God truly stands at the center of a community that endeavors to act in the image of God. This communal layout speaks to the ideal relationship between God and humans.

Rashi proves insightful in understanding the other meaningful aspect reflected in the communal layout of the Israelites. On Numbers 3:38, “those who were to camp before the Tabernacle, in front —; before the Tent of Meeting, on the east —; were Moses and Aaron and his sons,” he says, “and adjacent to him was the standard of the camp of Judah and next to the latter were encamped Issachar and Zebulun — ‘well is it with the righteous, well with his neighbor!’ Because they were the neighbors of Moses who occupied himself with Torah, they themselves became eminent scholars in the Law.” Not only did the Israelites look toward the center —; toward God —; for guidance, the Israelites looked to each other for inspiration. Because Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun stood in close proximity to Moses, they learned from his spiritual ways. Moses shaped the personalites of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun and no doubt, these three tribes influenced Moses. Each was indeed separate but each learned from the other.

The configuration of the Israelites in Biblical times is anything but anachronistic; this narrative is reflected in and informs our own reality. First, as expressed by our passage from Bemidbar, the Israelites were divided among a number of tribes or groups —; each carrying its own standard and emblem. Today, such division is reflected politically and religiously. We think about the world, and especially the Jewish world, in different ways. Rather than relating to such diversity as a source of weakness, this week’s parasha encourages us to understand such differences as a source of strength. Just knowing that so many opportunities for Jewish expression exist should make us proud. Secondly, as Rashi suggests, we have the ability to enrich each other’s lives — to learn from one another and shape each other’s perspectives. Rashi’s comment challenges us to be open to opportunities for learning and growing that are in close proximity to us — we must become more sensitive to their presence. Just as the tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun learned from the model of Moses’ wisdom, so too may we look about and learn from the models of wisdom, piety, and tolerance that surround us. And third, just as God’s Presence lay at the center of the Israelite encampment, so too must we be cognizant that God’s Presence continues to reside in the midst of the community. By continually reminding ourselves of God’s Presence, our behavior in both our personal and public lives comes to reflect a sacred awareness. Taken collectively, appreciation of diversity, the ability to learn from one and another, and the recognition of God’s Presence are those elements which create the brilliance of the Jewish people.

A midrash of Vayiqra Rabbah 36:2, returns us to Jefferson’s gardens of Monticello. There, the midrash compares Israel to a vine and comments, “The vine is not planted haphazardly but arranged in ordered rows. So too, Israel are arranged under separate standards — ‘every person with his own standard, according to their emblems’ (Numbers 2:2).” May the people that has been so blessed by the planting of God, have the foresight to see the strength of its parts and the wisdom of its Maker.

Shabbat shalom,

Matthew Berkowitz