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Those who encamp at the front, on the eastern side, shall be the divisions of Judah under its flag… they shall be the first to journey. (2:3,9)
The Book of Numbers opens with a census of the population listed by tribe, and generally in order of birth: Reuben, Simeon, and so on. However the second chapter, which shows the positions they took in marching and camping in the wilderness around the Tabernacle, groups them in trios, and in a different order. The first trio is under Judah, with Issachar and Zebulun. The second is led by Reuben, with Simeon and Gad. Following, on the west side, is Ephraim, under whose flag are Manasseh and Benjamin. And the flag of Dan, with Asher and Naftali, brings up the rear.
Why are the tribes not placed in the positions in the order they are listed in the first chapter? And what is special about the tribes of Judah, Reuben, Manasseh, and Dan which have leading roles? And why does the tribe of Judah become the first to lead, rather than the tribe of Reuben, the firstborn?
The Kli Yakar stresses that each trio possessed different qualities, the highest ones characterizing Judah, and Issachar and Zebulun. Judah's career opened with successful spiritual leadership: as Jacob blessed Judah: "The scepter of majesty shall not pass from Judah, nor the law-giver from his descendants" (Gen. 49:10), the law-giving being suffused with the light of Torah. [In addition, Judah's leadership involved his putting his own life on the line by interceding on behalf of Benjamin with Jacob, and later with Joseph.] Indeed, Jacob's concluding words to Judah were that he should be like a 'young lion', and indeed, his descendants were to become the ruling House of David. Leadership, however, needs suitable spiritual support (supplied by Issachar, Rashi to Gen. 49:14), and suitable material support generated through international trade (supplied by Zebulun, Rashi to Gen. 49:13).
Reuben headed the second trio. Reuben's course opened with well-intentioned leadership, but unlike Judah's, it tended to misfire. Though he successfully saved Joseph from the fatal consequences of his brothers' jealousy, his intervention in his father's inter-wife domestic arrangements earned him severe reproof, even though Chazal state that his intentions were entirely unselfish and sincere, and the Kli Yakar (based on Sotah 7b) stresses that he acknowledged and repented for that error. The tribe of Reuben was together with Simeon and Gad. Gad's giving the impression that he wanted to settle on the east side of the Jordan and avoid the wars of conquest in the west were to greatly trouble Moses, until that tribe stipulated that their men would lead the war against the Canaanites from the front. Simeon, like Reuben, had shown leadership in killing the men of Shechem because of the rape of Dinah. But his action, as Reuben's, deeply disturbed his father. Overall, leadership with flaws even with the best intentions was worthy, but not on the same level as successful leadership, thus putting the firstborn Reuben into second place.
Following this line of discussion, Ephraim's leadership was of a more secondary nature. Joshua's reality was that his leadership was as a continuation of the life of Moses, rather than a new movement is his own right. It came from his being a disciple (Ex. 33:11) of Moses, a developer rather than an initiator of the Tradition. He was flanked by his older brother, Manasseh, and the second descendant of Rachel, Benjamin. Benjamin's leadership included the royal House of Saul, which became 'weaker and weaker' (Sam. II 3:1) in the face of the House of David.
And finally Dan, producing Samson whose leadership was "beginning to save the Israelites from the Philistines" (Judges 13:5), it can be suggested had the least overall impact. That was none the least from his own errors of judgment, destining him to be blinded, 'run the mill' and 'bring the house down' on himself included, with no direct heir or disciple. His associate tribes were Naftali and Asher: which were both to specialize in agriculture (Gen. 49:20, Deut. 33:23-24), but on a local 'inward-looking' rather than (as Zebulun) a more productive and wider-in-scope international 'outward looking' basis.
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Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
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