Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller
This week’s parsha is devoted to the regimentation of the Jewish people during their years in the desert. The 12 שבטים (tribes) were counted and organized into camps with a very specific configuration, while they were moving camp and also when they encamped. Every tribe’s location was specific and collectively they encircled the heart of the camp, the אהל מועד (Tent of Meeting), containing the ark and the holy vessels. This nucleus of holiness was the focal point of communal service and dedication to Hashem. This proximity and visibility of the Mishkan created a sense of intimacy and closeness to the Divine presence.
In contrast to this, there were many boundaries and warnings to the Jewish people to maintain a respectful distance from Hashem’s presence. During travel, the holy vessels were covered to prevent anyone from gawking at them, and they were carried wrapped in their coverings. Throughout the description of the camping and travel arrangements , there were warnings to maintain careful boundaries and that the holy should not be trespassed upon.
Rav Shamshon R. Hirsch (prominent Jewish thinker and Chumash commentator1808-1888) notes the dichotomy in this arrangement. The Tabernacle and the Torah that sanctifies it are the unifying presence in the midst of the camp. This conveys a message of affinity to the Torah, and its constant presence in our lives. At the same time, it was to be regarded with extreme awe and be approached with respect and trepidation. This was to avoid the familiarity that breeds informality and disrespect.
Rav Hirsch explains that these formalities are an expression of the Jew’s relationship to the Torah. The Torah is not a set of values developed by the Jewish people to guide the spirit of the community. The Torah does not emanate from the human soul; it is a G-d given Torah, divinely inspired and written. Our job is to assimilate Hashem’s word into our souls and behaviors. Nothing else will work for us. This is why the Mishkan, the seat of Hashem’s presence, is in our midst; yet, it is separated from us by these boundaries to assure that we have the correct attitude when we relate to it.
We are preparing for the renewal of our acceptance of Hashem’s Torah on Shavuos, the day the heavens opened, and Hashem spoke to us directly. We approach the Yom Tov and the Torah with renewed commitment and love, and we do so knowing that the Torah is here to define us, not the other way around.