Our reading this week discusses at length the camp of the Children of Israel “in the desert”—Bamidbar. The head of each tribe is identified, followed by a census of that tribe. This is followed in turn by a description of where each tribe, and group of tribes, camped in relation to the Tabernacle in the center. We are told there were four flags, for the tribes of Yehudah, Reuven, Ephraim, and Dan, and two additional tribes camped together with each of them.

As the Torah describes where each tribe lived, it repeats the tally of that tribe. After enumerating each group, its tribes, and its population, the Torah then gives the total count for each group, which is simply the sum of the population of the three tribes, which it had just listed. Long addition is a task which the average primary school graduate can perform unaided, even without a calculator app. So why is this level of repetition necessary?

We learn from all of these descriptions, including the repetition, the importance of each individual, and his or her role within the larger community.

When I started writing this, I referred to the “encampment” of the Children of Israel, and then realized that given what has been going on at various universities, I probably wanted to choose a different word. And as we see, the camp of the Jews in the desert was as different from the tents on campus as night is from day. There was structure and order. Everyone resided with his or her tribe, and his or her family. The camp was not haphazard, disordered, and unbathed.

And unlike a mob, everyone counted, individually. Every person was represented through the head of their tribe, and all the women and children were included through the tally of heads of households (men over twenty). Each and every person and family was so important as to be counted twice together with the tribe.

Someone recently asked how can we, as Jews, fulfill all the Commandments when our Temple has been destroyed and there are, as a result, hundreds of Commandments that do not apply, plus dozens more that apply only to those living in the Land of Israel. The answer is simple: we uphold them all. We recognize the obligation and that the Torah is ours to follow.

But this is connected to the count of all the Children of Israel, together, because at no time did all of the Commandments apply directly to any single individual. Certain Commandments pertain only to priests, others only to the High Priest, and yet a third group applies only to kings. Yet they all apply to all of us because we are, despite our individuality, one unit, and connected to those in different eras who did observe the Commandments that we cannot. We each have our place within the larger picture.

The Jewish family remains one unit, and each and every individual has a unique role to play within it. And that includes each and every one of us.

Photo credit: Dat Tuanlam on Flickr

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