In this week’s Torah reading of B’midbar, we learn that God instructs Moses and Aaron as to the precise placement and arrangement of each tribe in the Israelite encampment as they wandered on their journey through the wilderness. To the east side camped the tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun, to the south the tribes of Reuben, Simeon, and Gad, to the west Ephraim, Menashe, and Benjamin, and to the north encamped the tribes of Dan, Asher, and Naftali. The Israelite community was well organized with three tribes on each of the four sides.
In the center of the encampment was the Tent of Meeting, also referred to as the Holy Tabernacle or the Mishkan. It is no accident that when God gives these instructions to Moses and Aaron that the point of reference is the Mishkan, which represents the spiritual soul of the community, the place where God’s presence was manifest, the place where the ark of the covenant was held. Every morning upon waking up, the first thing the Israelites would see would be the Mishkan and the ark.
By orienting themselves around each side of the Mishkan, the Israelite community was reminded on a daily basis the importance and defining role of God, worship, and Torah to the Jewish community. One tradition even holds that the tribe of Judah, which was on the eastern and front side, would march backward so that their backs were never turned towards the ark. A remnant of the tradition exists even today. In some communities the custom is to walk backward when stepping away from the Torah while it is on the reading table.
Today, it is common for Jews to place in our homes different types of physical reminders of the centrality of the religious spiritual experience. Jewish artwork and ritual objects displayed in our home, mezuzot on our doors, and Jewish books on our bookshelves all help to remind us of our Jewish identity. In today’s world, however, these physical reminders alone do not bring the same spiritual experience and intensity that the Mishkan and ark once did for the Israelites.
Therefore the responsibility lies upon each of us, as inheritors of our Jewish tradition and culture, in place of the physical reminder such as a Mishkan or ark, to find a way to heighten the importance of the religious experience.We do this by engagement and involvement in the spiritual life of the community through participation in congregational life, worship, Jewish communal life, learning, Israel, and acts of social action.
Through these acts, God’s presence will continue to reside at the center of our community just like the Israelites in ancient times.
Rabbi Brad Horwitz of the Helene Mirowitz Department of Community Jewish Life provided this week’s Torah Portion.