Traveling the desert
Traveling the desert iStock

In memory of my father Ze’ev (Warren) Pinner, who passed away in Jerusalem four years ago this Friday, 11th Sivan 5778 (24th May 2018). Yehi zichro baruch.

Parashat Beha’alot’cha occurs just over a year after the Exodus from Egypt, with the nation of Israel still encamped around Mount Sinai.

Two weeks ago, Parashat Bamidbar cited G-d’s commanding the layout of the Camp of Israel (Numbers 2). The Mishkan (Tabernacle) was in the centre of the Camp, the various Levite families in close proximity surrounding it, and the Twelve Tribes surrounding them.

This week, Parashat Beha’alot’cha records that “in the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth of the month, the Cloud ascended from above the Tabernacle of Testimony, and the Children of Israel journeyed on their journeys from the Sinai Desert” (10:11-12).

The time of encamping around Mount Sinai had finished, and the Jewish nation was beginning its trek home towards the Land of Israel.

The Torah details the order of breaking camp (10:14-28):

The first to leave Mount Sinai and journey towards Israel were the three Tribes encamped east of the Mishkan, led by Judah.

Then the Mishkan was taken down, and the Gershonite and Merarite Families, who carried it, followed.

Then came the three Tribes in the south, led by Reuben.

Then came the Kohathite Families, who also carried the Mishkan, and whose responsibility it was to erect it at the next station before the rest of the camp arrived.

Following them came the three Tribes on the west, led by Ephraim.

And finally, bringing up the rear, came the three Tribes to the north. Dan was the hindmost of all the Tribes. The Torah describes the Tribe of Dan as מְאַסֵּף לְכָל הַמַּחֲנֹת (10:25), the exact meaning of which is somewhat obscure.

ArtScroll translates “the rear guard of all the camps”. JPS and Rabbi Joseph Hertz favour the translation “the rearward of all the camps”. Rabbi Joseph Hertz explains, “the work of such a rearguard would consist in collecting stragglers, in taking charge of such as had fainted by the way, and in finding and restoring lost articles”.

The Margolin edition has maybe the most accurate translation: “the flag of the camp of the Children of Dan then travelled according to their groups, collecting for all the camps [whatever was left behind]”.

The word מְאַסֵּף definitely connotes “collect” or “gather”, hence this understanding.

The sequence of breaking camp and travelling is of course not random or capricious: there are reasons for the Tribes travelling in this formation.

210 years earlier, when the sons of Israel (literally the sons of Israel, Jacob’s sons) stood before Tzafenat Pa’aneach, the governor of Egypt, whom they did not yet recognise as their little brother Joseph, when he had framed the youngest son Benjamin and threatened to hold him as a slave for the rest of his life, it was Judah who seized he initiative and stepped forth, risking his own freedom and indeed his very life to intercede on Benjamin’s behalf (Genesis 44).

That responsibility should have fallen to Reuben, the oldest of the brothers. But it was Judah who demonstrated true courage, leadership, and readiness for self-sacrifice for his brother.

And therefore it was Judah who became destined for royalty when their father Jacob/Israel blessed all his sons (Genesis 49:8-12).

And so, as befits the Tribe of Royalty, Judah led the way towards the Land of Israel.

And why was Dan at the back?

– The Tribe of Dan had two characteristics throughout Tanachic history: the first was that of all the Tribes, they were the most tainted by idolatry.

Even before the Giving of the Torah, in those first weeks after the Exodus, the Clouds of Glory had spat the Tribe of Dan out from their protection because of their idolatry, and as a result, Amalek was able to strike at Dan (see Targum Yonatan to Exodus 17:8).

Some three centuries later, it was the Tribe of Dan who worshipped the idolatrous statue of Michayehu (Judges 17-18).

And a century-and-a-third later still, immediately after King Solomon’s death and the split of the Kingdom, King Yerav’am (Jeroboam), upon becoming King of Israel (the northern Kingdom) erected two golden calves as idols to replace the Holy Temple in Jerusalem: one in Beit El, the other in the territory of Dan.

And it was the one in Dan which became wildly popular (1 Kings 12:25-33): apparently the Danites were far more receptive to idolatry than the Ephraimites were (the Tribe in which Beit El was).

But on the other hand, their second characteristic was that when it came to fighting for the Land, the Tribe of Dan were the most valiant and determined. At the very beginning of the conquest of the Land of Israel, it was the Tribe of Dan who pushed the border of Israel northwards, conquering land and expanding the country (Joshua 19:40-48).

Dan were the secular Zionists of the Tanachic era.

And so they were not worthy of leading the nation to its Land: the leader of the holy nation must be guided by Torah. But they were eminently worthy of protecting the nation from behind.

It is highly pertinent that in Tanachic idiom, the phrase “from Dan to Beer Sheva” connotes the entire Land of Israel: Dan was the furthest north that Israel reached, and Beer Sheva was the southernmost inhabited area.

(Israel continues further south, another 190 km/120 miles, all the way to Eilat. But most of the land south of Beer Sheva is uninhabitable desert.)

Beer Sheva is of course in the territory of the Tribe of Judah. So the idiom “from Dan to Beer Sheva” connotes from Dan to Judah – not only the geographical extremities of the settled Land of Israel, but also the extremities of the Tribal camp traveling through the Sinai Desert to Israel: from Dan (the rear-most of the Tribes) to Judah (the leader of the Tribes).

And thus the nation begins its trek from Mount Sinai to Israel: all Twelve Tribes, led by the Tribe of Royalty at the front, the Tent of Meeting (the Mishkan) in the centre, and the fighting Tribe positioned at their hinterland, following and protecting the other Tribes.