[based in part on ideas found on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s VBM]
The second perek of Bamidbar discusses, at length, the encampment of Bnei Yisrael in the desert, specifically the familial and tribal flags.
אִישׁ עַל-דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִנֶּגֶד סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל-מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ
What is this section on Bnei Yisrael’s encampment all about, and what is its significance?
To help answer, we must skip ahead a few weeks to Parshat Balak, in which Bilaam utters the famous passage of “mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov”.
The passages leading up to this praise of Bnei Yisrael give us the context for the praise, and relate directly to Parshat Bamidbar. A closer look:
1. The section leads off by telling us that the “spirit of Hashem was upon Bilaam” (ותהי עליו רוח א-לה-ים), so already we know that Bilaam is going to make a profound statement.
2. Secondly, in contrast to the previous times when Bilaam only saw part of the Israelite encampment, Bilaam now sees the entire nation.
3. Furthermore, the Torah tells us that he saw this encampment against the backdrop of the desert: “… and he set his face to the desert. And Bilaam lifted his eyes and saw Israel dwelling by their tribes”(24:1-2).
What is the significance of each?
Points 1 & 2: The introduction, describing Bilaam’s cognitive state, tells us that this is not an external, superficial observing of the nation, but rather a perception of a certain quality exemplified by the nation of Israel: he sees them camping “by their tribes.” This description refers to the order and organization of Bnei Yisrael’s encampment. Once Bilaam sees the impressive organization of the Israelite camp — compartmentalized by their tribes, each individual connected with his family and his clan — the exuberant blessing bursts forth: “How good are your tents, Yaakov, your dwelling places, Israel” (24:5).
Point 3: The desert represents a world without boundaries and order; it is untamed, lacking societal norms, a place where wild animals roam free. Here, in the midst of the boundlessness of the desert, Bilaam witnesses a remarkable sight: 600,000 soldiers, along with the elderly, women and children, journeying by families and by tribes. It is specifically against the backdrop of the desert that the splendor of the camp of Israel stands out: a nation that creates banners and tribes, that maintains clans and tents of families.Even in an environment with blurred boundaries; even from the perspective of Bilaam – who was commissioned by Amon and Moav, whose genealogy goes back to the story of Lot sleeping with his daughters, where the fundamental definitions of lineage are themselves blurred (through Lot’s daughters’ incestuous plot) – the camp of Bnei Yisrael is based upon a solid foundation of “good tents.”
Bnei Yisrael rallies around the Torah (at the center of the entire encampment), and the strong relationships within each individual tent and grouping, so that in the wild, untamed desert, no one gets left behind, and every child knows the importance of family. Most importantly, their behavior is not governed by, and does not mirror, their unruly surroundings. Just because they are in a place devoid of rule and order, doesn’t mean they conduct themselves in that way.
A final, related thought: It is within Sefer Bamidbar and in the desert that Bnei Yisrael goes through their toughest challenges. Over and over they anger Hashem and Moshe (mit’onnenim, meraglim, Korach,Mei Meriva, etc.), but it is out of difficult experiences and harsh lessons, that they (really, the children of the Dor HaMidbar) can become the nation to inhabit the land of Israel. The midbar serves as a training ground for this young nation.
So among the many reasons why the entire sefer is called “Bamidbar”, are perhaps to teach that:
1. Sometimes being in a difficult situation or environment allows us to shine the brightest and make tremendous kiddushei Hashem. Our world today is somewhat of a treacherous desert, and our challenge is to ensure that our beliefs and behavior are not altered to fit our surroundings, so that we can maintain the regal and disciplined tents of Yaakov; and
2. Tangling with adversity is necessary, because it builds character and prepares us for the road ahead.