Parshat Behar -
Four 'Bchorim': The Order of the Shvatim

(To prepare for this shiur,
see the questions for self study.)

What is the 'correct' order of the "shvatim" (the twelve tribes)? For some reason, each time that they are listed in Parshat Bamidbar their order seems to change!

In this week's shiur, we attempt to explain why.

PART I - The Order of the Shvatim

In Parshat Bamidbar, the "shvatim" are listed in three different instances; while discussing:

(A) The leaders (1:5-15);
(B) The actual census (1:20-43);
(C) Their arrangement surrounding the Mishkan (2:1-31).

The following table compares the order of the shvatim in each respective list. A star -*- notes a significant change from one list to the next:


To understand this progression from one list to the next, we must first analyze the logic of the order of the shvatim in each list.

The order of the leaders, column (A), appears to be the most logical. This list begins with the children of Leah (eldest first), followed by the children of Rachel, followed by the children of the 'shfachot' (the maidservants - Bilha and Zilpa). (See Board #1.)

The order of the actual census, column (B), is almost identical, but - with one very peculiar exception: Gad has 'moved up' from position #11 to position #3! For some reason, it appears as though Gad has been 'adopted' by "bnei Leah" (the children of Leah). (See Board #2.)

This special placement of Gad with "bnei Leah" remains when the shvatim are organized surrounding the Mishkan, as can be seen in column (C). However, in this third list we find another very peculiar change: Yehuda, Yisachar, and Zevulun - the youngest children of Leah - have 'jumped' to the top of list - ahead of their older brothers Reuven and Shimon! (See Board #3.) This final list is very important for it reflects the actual formation in which Bnei Yisr ael travel through the desert on their journey to Eretz Canaan (see 10:13-28).

To explain the logic behind this 're-organization' of the shvatim we must consider the purpose of the Mishkan - a symbol of God's presence, and its strategic location.

Divine Division
Recall from God's original commandment in Sefer Shmot, that Bnei Yisrael were instructed to erect the Mishkan in the center of the camp:

Therefore, in order to locate the Mishkan at the center of the camp, the twelve tribes are divided into four divisions. In this manner, the Mishkan will be surrounded equally in all four directions (East, South, West, and North). However, to crea te four 'divisions' from twelve tribes, the shvatim must be divided into four groups of three tribes each. Furthermore, each division, requires a group leader - therefore four leadership tribes must be chosen, one for each division. Which tribes wi ll be chosen?

As family leadership is the responsibility of the "bchor" - the first born son - we find that the four leadership "shvatim" are simply the four sons of Yaakov who possess a certain aspect of "bechorah":
1) Reuven; 2) Yehuda; 3) Ephraim; and 4) Dan

Let's explain why:
1) Reuven is the biological first born of Leah. (See Board #4.)
2) Yehuda, due to Reuven's sin (see Breishit 35:22), is appointed by Yaakov as the family "bchor." Yehuda is chosen over Shimon and Levi, even though they are older, due to their reckle ss behavior during the incident at Shchem (see Breishit 34:30).
(See Board #5.)
[See also Yaakov's blessing to his children in 49:3-12 and Divrei Hayamim I 5:1-2!]
3) Ephraim is the first born of Yaakov's wife Rachel. In his deathbed blessing to Yosef, Yaakov awards the family "bechora" to Yosef by granting him a 'double portion,' i.e. his two sons, Menashe and Ephraim, attain the status of a "shevet" (see Breishit 48:5). Although Menashe is the eldest son of Yosef, Yaakov awards the "bechora" of the children of Rachel to Ephraim, as explained in Breishit 48:17-19.
(See Board #6.)
4) Dan is the firstborn of the children of the Yaakov's "shfachot" (maidservants) Bilha and Zilpa. As these "bnei ha'shfachot" comprise a separate unit, they also require a leader. Dan is chosen for he is the first born of Bilha, the "shifcha" of Rachel, the first maidservant to give Yaakov a child.(See Board #7.)

[Note that the four leadership positions are divided equally between Yaakov's two wives: Rachel -2 and Leah -2.]

Once the four leadership tribes have been designated, each leader must be joined by two additional shvatim in order to form the necessary four groups of three. Considering that the leaders are chosen based on the first born children of Yaakov's wives, it is only logical that each leader should be joined by his closest brothers. Therefore:

1) Reuven should be joined by Shimon and Levi, his two younger brothers. However, Levi has a 'new job' and must encamp in closer proximity to the Mishkan (see Bamidbar chapter 3). Thus, Reuven is joined only by Shimon and remains one shevet 'short.' (See Board #8.)
2) Yehuda is joined by his two younger brothers, Yisachar and Zevulun. His group is complete. (See Board #9.)
3) Ephraim, the bechor of the house of Rachel, is joined by his brother Menashe, and his uncle Binyamin, (Rachel's youngest son). Thus, the group of "bnei Rachel" - is also complete. (See Board #10.)
4) Dan is joined by the other children of the shfachot, his brother Naftali, and the two children of Zilpa, Gad and Asher. However, this group has too many for it totals four! Therefore, Dan's group has an extra "shevet." (See Board #11.)

Considering that Reuven is 'short' one shevet and Dan has one too many, it is only logical that one of Dan's extras moves to Reuven's group. For this reason, Gad 'moves' from his 'home camp' to join the camp of Reuven. (See Board #12.) Why was specifically Gad chosen? Naftali remains with Dan, for he is his full brother. Therefore, we are left to choose between Gad and Asher, the two children of Zilpa. Gad is chosen for he is the eldest son of Zilpa, and hence given the 'privilege' to join the camp of Reuven, while hi s younger brother Asher remains with the camp of Dan.

This explains the four divisions in the encampment of the tribes surrounding the Mishkan and during their travel through the desert: (See Board #13)




Yehuda, Yisachar, and Zevulun
          [Bnei Leah]
Reuven,Shimon, and Gad
          [Bnei Leah + Gad]
Ephraim, Menashe, and Binyamin
          [Bnei Rachel]
Dan, Naftali, and Asher
          [Bnei HaShfachot]

While travelling through the desert from Egypt towards Eretz Canaan, the basic direction of travel is eastward, therefore the camp in the East travels first. Yehuda is chosen for this direction, as he was originally chosen by Yaakov for his leadership abilities.

With this background, we can now return to original question and explain the logic behind the three conflicting orders of the shvatim (Board #3):

(A) The presentation of tribal leaders (A) follows the most logical order: by mother/ by birth, i.e. the children of Leah - followed by the children of Rachel - followed by the children of the shfachot. [For some reason, the children of the shfachot are not listed by the order of their birth. It seems that Naftali must always be last, and Asher precedes Gad for he will remain within the camp of "bnei ha'shfachot."]
(B) The census (B) is basically the same, however it already reflects the 'transfer' of shevet Gad into the camp of Reuven, placing him in the position of Levi (#3).
(C) The organization of the shvatim around the Mishkan (C) reflects not only Gad's new position within the camp of Reuven, but also Yehuda's leadership position in travel formation, for he is destined to be the leader of all the shvatim. [See Breishit 49:10 - "lo yasur shevet m'yudah..."]

PART II - When and Why
The opening pasuk of Parshat Bamidbar informs us that this organization of the shvatim and the census took place on the first day of Iyar (in the second year, see 1:1). However, in the details of the Mishkan's dedication ceremony, as recorded in Parshat Naso, we find an apparent contradiction. Let's explain.

The Mishkan was dedicated on the first of Nisan, i.e. one month before the census. Parshat Naso (7:12-83) informs us that on each of the first twelve days of Nisan, a different "nasi" (prince) of the twelve tribes offered a special korban. To our surprise, we find that the daily order of the princes follows precisely in the same order as -C-, i.e. in the same manner as the shvatim traveled through the desert and surrounded the Mishkan !

However, that census took place one month later!

Could it be that this identical order is simply coincidental? If not, why did this order exist even before the census took place?

To answer this question, we must recognize that this special organization of the shvatim served a double purpose:

(1) MILITARY To prepare the camp for travel in military order, in anticipation of their conquest of Eretz Canaan.
(2) SPIRITUAL To emphasize to the entire nation that the Mishkan must located at the center of the camp.

Let's explain:

(1) The census in Parshat Bamidbar of all the males above the age of twenty - "kol yotze tzava b'Yisrael [all who go out to war in Israel]" (1:3) - as well as the subsequent organization of t he twelve tribes into four divisions, appears to be of a military nature. This assumption is supported by the fact that Moshe is commanded to take this census on the first of Iyar, only 20 days before Bnei Yisrael actually leave Har Sinai on the 20th of I yar (see 10:11) and begin their journey to conquer Eretz Canaan.
(2) One month earlier, when the Mishkan is dedicated, we find that this same order of the shvatim already existed. Most probably, once the construction of the Mishkan began, Bnei Yisrael already re-organized their camp in such a way that the Mishkan would be located at its center. To do so, it was necessary to divide the twelve tribes into four groups of three, with each group flanking the Mishkan in a different direction.

The Sh'china Returns
To understand the importance of the location of the Mishkan at the center of the camp, we must return to the events which took place after chet ha'Egel.

Recall that in response to chet ha'Egel, God had instructed Bnei Yisrael to remove their 'crowns' that they had received at Har Sinai (see Shmot 33:5-6), a sign that He is removing His Sh'chi na from their midst. For the very same reason, God then instructed Moshe to move his tent (the site where God speaks to Moshe) outside the camp:

The very location of this 'Ohel Moed' (tent of meeting) outside the camp served as a constant reminder to Bnei Yisrael that God had removed His Sh'china from the camp. In order for His Sh'china to return, it was necessary for Bnei Yisrael to build the Mishkan:

Therefore, the re-organization of the camp of Bnei Yisrael in such a manner that the Mishkan is located at its center serves as a sign to the people that God has indeed returned His Sh'china to the camp.

Because of its significance, the arrangement of the shvatim around the Mishkan continued even after the forty years in the desert. In Sefer Yehoshua, when the shvatim receive their "nachalot" (chapters 13-19), we find a very similar configuration!

Recall that according to the blessing of Moshe in Parshat v'Zot ha'Bracha, the tribe of Binyamin is destined to house the Bet Ha'Mikdash (see Devarim 33:12 - "ydid Hashem, yishkon l'vetach ala v..."). If we consider the nachala of Binyamin "nachlat Sh'china" (as Chazal do), then the following parallel emerges.

In the Desert:


In Eretz Yisrael:


In both cases, the site of the Sh'china, i.e. the Mishkan or "nachalat Binyamin," is surrounded by the same four 'leadership' shvatim! [The directions have simply rotated 90 degrees (and inverted).]

Why must the Torah go into such minute detail to tell us precisely how Bnei Yisrael encamped and travelled?

The Mishkan serves a double purpose:

(1) It acts as a symbol of God's presence within the camp of Israel (see Shmot 25:8 and above), and...
(2) It functions as a constant reminder to Bnei Yisrael, as they travel, of their Divine purpose.

As Bnei Yisrael prepare their departure from Har Sinai towards the conquest of the Land of Israel, they face a new challenge. Can they translate what they have learned at Har Sinai into the norms of the daily life of a nation? Are they capable of fulfill ing the mundane tasks of fighting battles, establishing a nation, and cultivating the land etc., while at the same time remaining on the spiritual level of Har Sinai?

One could suggest that the complexity of this goal is symbolized by their travel with the Mishkan in their midst, and the challenge to re-construct the Mishkan at each location during this difficult journey.

This week, as we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, this challenge takes on special significance. Can we continue the battle for Yerushalayim and the mundane chore of maintaining a secure and prosperous state, without compromising on the spiritual ideals of Har Sinai? Can we maintain Yerushalayim not only as a unified capital city, but also as a city characterized by "tzedek u'mishpat" (justice and righteousness)? Although the Bet HaMikdash on Har HaBayit, the symbol of this challenge, was destroyed some two t housand years ago, Parshat Bamidbar remains as a yearly reminder of this goal.

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