The Talmud reports that the generation of Yehuda Bar Illai represented Torah study at its best. What was so striking about that generation? The Talmud says that in that period, six people would study together under a single blanket. On one level, the Talmud means that despite having only one blanket due to harsh poverty, the people were still devoted to Torah study.
Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, however, offers another explanation: The only way six people could have sat together under one blanket was if everyone was looking out for each other, making sure that all are "covered." The true greatness of Yehuda Bar Ilai's generation could be found in the way they loved and respected one another.
A similar idea is expressed in the Torah itself, regarding the revelation at Mt. Sinai. The Torah describes how the Jewish People were so unified at the time of the revelation, that it was as if "one person" stood at Mt. Sinai. It was precisely because of this unity that they were worthy of receiving God's law.
This theme plays a pivotal role in this week's Torah portion, Bamidbar. The parsha goes to great length to describe the Israelite encampment in the desert:
In the middle of the camp were the Levites and the sanctuary. Surrounding this center were the 12 Tribes, creating an overall shape of a square. There were three tribes in each of the four sides of the square - north, south, east and west - constituting secondary encampments. Accompanying each tribe was a flag which had that tribe's particular insignia upon it. The colors of the flags were patterned after the colors of the stones on the High Priest's breastplate, each of which represented a different tribe.
The Midrash says that when God suggested this arrangement, Moses questioned the idea, saying, "Now there will be disputes between the tribes." Moses reasoned that once he starts specifying who travels in the East and who travels in the West, who is in front and who is in back, people are going to start arguing. Moreover, each of the different directions of the compass is associated with a different quality and blessing. The north, for instance, is associated with wealth, and the south with wisdom.
God explained to Moses that there was no need for concern. The tribes would accept the encampment arrangements for a simple reason: Years earlier, at Jacob's funeral, his 12 sons carried the coffin. The way the sons were arranged around the coffin is the same way the tribes would be arranged in the desert camp. In this way, everyone would already be clear as to his proper place. So don't worry, God tells Moses, because when someone knows their place, there is inevitably peace and calm.
And so it was. In our parsha, after a long description of who will travel first, and who will travel last, the Torah says: "And the Jewish People did exactly as they were instructed" (Numbers 1:54).
Love and respect for each individual, and a recognition of how each contributes to the whole – is the way for our Jewish nation to achieve true greatness.
May it be so speedily in our days.