The Rabbi's Study

A Calendar of Camps

Of all the orderings of the Tribes, be it by their mother, by their birth order, by their birthright, and so forth, I am most fascinated by the ordering at the beginning of Parashat Bamidbar when considered in light of Sefer Yetzirah, one of the earliest texts of Jewish mysticism.

The Torah says:

Hashem spoke to Moshe and to Aharon saying. Each person by their flag with signs of their ancestral household, the Children of Yisrael should camp; opposite surrounding the Ohel Mo’ed they should camp. (Num. 2:1-2)

In other words, they are to divide up into four groups and camp in different directions. Later in this section, the Torah specifies that the tribes of Yehudah, Yissakhar, and Zevulun camp to the east; the tribes of Reuven, Shimon, and Gad camp to the south; the tribes of Ephraim, Menashe, and Binyamin camp to the west; the tribes of Dan, Asher, and Naftali camp to the north.

In Sefer Yetzirah we learn that the tribes also have the following associations:


So, as one follows from the east around the Ohel Mo’ed, we see there is a correspondence to the calendar of the year in its proper order. Now the question we need to ask is, why?

Perhaps the answer is found in Midrash. In Shemot Rabbah (15:7) we read:

You find that there are twelve constellations in the firmament, just as the heavens are not able to stand without the twelve constellations, so too the word is not able to stand without the twelve tribes.

In his commentary on Midrash, Etz Yosef, Rabbi Hanokh Zundel ben Yosef (19th c. Russia) writes:

Because the world is sustained through them as they are an example of the supernal realm.

In other words, the tribes are not (just) tribes, they are a symbol of the relationship between the cosmos and the earth. The calendar is the mechanism through which we relate to time beyond our limited experience. Similarly, the tribes become a mechanism through which we relate to our ancestry and lineage beyond our physical genealogy.

I was once listening to a call-in radio program on NPR about science, and the topic was astronomy and gravity. Someone called in and stated, “my great dane in the corner of my living room has more of a gravitational pull on me than Saturn!” To which the astronomer on the program provided the math as to why this statement is quantifiably false. Whether one believes in astrology or not, the astronomical significance of the gravitational pull of cosmic bodies is significant. Stars and planets actually do have a mathematical impact on our physical bodies. The calendar is not merely an arbitrary counting of days, it is an expression of the human experience of cosmic cycles. Seemingly for all of human history, we have recognized that constellations are a significant part of our experience of the world beyond the mythic narratives which we have crafted to tell their stories.

The Torah implicitly connects the tribes to the calendar to tell us that the impact which these cosmic bodies have on our earthly existence is significant, and just as the tribes become archetypes for how we connect to our cultural and ancestral lineage, the stars become vehicles through which we can connect to our cosmic lineage.

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