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   by Jacob Solomon

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'Those who camp at the front - on the east side, shall be the flag of the camp of Judah… they shall be the first to journey.' (2:3,9)

The Book of Numbers opens with census of the population listed by tribe in order of birth - Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah 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 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?

Each trio possessed different qualities. Judah's career opened with successful leadership - in putting his life on the line with his intercession 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 to operate in both suitable spiritual milieus (supplied by Issachar - as Rashi to Gen. 49:14), and material milieus (from Zebulun - as Rashi to Gen. 49:13).

Reuben's course opened with leadership, which sometimes misfired. He successfully saved Joseph from the fatal consequences of his brothers' jealousy, but he had - earlier on - intervened in his father's inter-wife domestic arrangements, which had earned his severe reproof, even though his intentions (following Rabbinical tradition) were entirely unselfish and sincere. The tribe of Reuben was together with Simeon and Gad. Like Reuben, Simeon had shown leadership in his vengeance over he people of Shechem over the rape of Dinah. But his action - as Reuben's, deeply disturbed his father. And Gad's conduct - in 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 their men would lead the war against the Canaanites from the front. Overall, leadership with flaws even with the best intentions was worthy, but not in the same place as successful leadership - thus putting the firstborn Reuben into second place.

Ephraim's leadership was of a more secondary nature. Joshua became a leader 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 third 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: 'beginning to save the Israelites from the Philistines' (13:5) - had the least overall impact. That was none the least from his own weaknesses, destining him to be blinded, 'run the mill' and 'bring the house down' - on himself included, with no direct heir. His associate tribes were Naftali and Asher: which were both to specialize in agriculture (Gen. 49:20-21), but on a local 'inward-looking' rather than (as Zebulun) an international 'outward looking' basis…

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: 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:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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