The Rabbi's Study

The Four Directions

“The frontiersĀ are not east or west, north or south, but wherever a man confronts a fact.” -Henry David Thoreau

While the influences of the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) and the global move towards rationalism have left Jewish mysticism on the fringes for some segments of the Jewish world, the fact remains that the influences of the mystical traditions far outweigh those of the more recent rationalist traditions, and the Torah itself remains a primarily mystical text – however many of these mystical elements remain very subtle and easy to overlook.

In last week’s email, I shared the layout of how the Tribes camped and marched, and the rationale behind the various orders in Parashat Bamidbar. There is also a deeper element which was not addressed – the relationship between the four banners and the Four Directions (generally referred to in Jewish mysticism as the “Four Winds”) and the microcosm of the Tribe of Levi – itself divided into four clans connected to the Four Winds.

To the East was the banner of Yehudah (Yehudah, Yissakhar, Zevulun); to the South the banner of Reuven (Reuven, Shimon, Gad); to the West the banner of Ephraim (Ephraim, Menashe, Binyamin); and to the North the banner of Dan (Dan, Asher, Naphtali). Each of these head-tribes is designated to this direction based upon their relationship to each of the Four Winds.

Likewise, the Tribe of Levi is arranged according to its four clans – Moshe and Aharon in the East, Kehat in the South, Gershon in the West, Merar in the North.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Nasso, we begin with the verse: “Elevate the head of the children of Gershon also them…” (Num. 4:22). The reason “also them” is necessary, otherwise a seeming superfluous phrase, is because while Gershon was the firstborn of Levi, the clan of Kehat is discussed first at the end of last week’s Torah portion. Kehat is discussed first because they are designated to carry the Ark of the Covenant and all of the gold overlaid items of the Mishkan, and since those are the most important vessels they are discussed first. However, as a recognition of the first-born status of Gershon, they are discussed next.

However, my question is why are they stationed in the West? Rabbeinu Bahya ben Asher (1255-1340 Spain) notes that there is a specific significance to each of the tribal banners stationed in their corresponding direction, and likewise a special significance to the four divisions of the Tribe of Levi according to their corresponding direction. However, in true form of great mystics, he does not specify the reason!

He is, in fact, referencing a midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 3:12) which states:

The Tribe of Levi was made into four divisions based on the Four Winds – the Mishkan corresponds to the Four Banners. Because of their actions the Levi’im were arranged according to the Four Winds just like the Banners were arranged. How so? The West, from where the storehouses of snow, the storehouses of hail and ice darkness – correspondingly is situated the Banner of Efraim, Binyamin and Menashe who were strong, they could stand in the presence of everyone and the inherited the place of the Western Wind; Gershon’s sacred service was “of the tent coverings and the screen,” (Num. 3:25) because who else could stand before snow, hail, ice and darkness? That is why they are responsible for the tent coverings and the screen! He is called Gershon because who else could live with snow, hail, ice and darkness other than one who is as strong as a ivory (shein), and ivory is always an expression of strength, as it is written: “his belly is a tablet of ivory.” (Song 5:14)

Why does Gershon merit the Western Wind? Because the clan a symbol of resilience and strength. The Western Wind being associated with darkness (sunset) and cold, it represents the need to be protected from the elements. Which of the clans of Levi are responsible for those aspects of the Mishkan which serve to protect? Gershon, who carries the tent walls and the screen separating the tent from the outside world. And that is why Gershon merits to be associated with the Western Wind.

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