The Torah portion outlines the building of the Tabernacle. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky makes a fascinating observation that helps us understand a key aspect of the Tabernacle’s significance1. In the beginning of Bamidbar, the Torah discusses the system of identifying each tribe during their travels in the desert. Each tribe had their own, distinctive flag, representing the role and character of that tribe. For example, A lion was featured on Yehuda’s tribe, indicating his status as the tribe of Kingship, since the lion is the King of the animals. Rabbi Kamenetsky notes that the system of flags only began during the second year of the Exodus – he asks why it took a whole year to initiate this straightforward system?

He answers that the Tabernacle was also only established in the second year of the Exocus, and it was imperative that there would be a Tabernacle before the establishment of the flags. Why is this the case? Rabbi Kamenetsky explains that the disparate flags represented the great differences that existed between each tribe. The different colors and symbols connoted the singular approach to life and the unique strengths of each tribal family.

Consequently, there was a high likelihood that the flags could be the cause of separation and disunity among the Jewish nation. Each tribe could direct their own philosophy to very disparate goals from the other tribes, with the consequence that the tribes could potentially come into conflict. In order to prevent this from happening, it was essential to have a focal point, reminding the tribes that they all had the same goal of service of God even if they had different ways of achieving it. This was one of the main purposes of the Tabernacle – it served as the unifying force for all the distinct elements of the Jewish nation.

There are different ways of looking at life, and there are a number of different roles that people may fulfil, but if everyone is ultimately living for the same reason – to serve God – then there is no need for our differences to result in conflict and disunity. Rabbi Kamenetsky cites the analogy of the human body: The ears and the eyes have very different functions, roles and strengths, but they are not in competition with each other because they serve the common goal of enabling a person to function properly.

This idea is most famously demonstrated by the Mechilta, cited by Rashi2 in Yitro. The Torah tells us that before the giving of the Torah, the Jewish people encamped in the desert. However, when describing this encampment, the Torah uses the singular form, instead of the plural form which should have been applied, since the verse was talking about many people. The Mechilta explains that the Torah was alluding to the fact that the Jewish people were ‘like one man, with one heart’ – they were completely united, to the point that they were considered as one entity, and not numerous individuals. It is clearly not a coincidence that this is the only time where Chazal make this point. The commentaries explain that it was essential that all the Jewish people be totally focused on serving God and receiving the Torah, to the exclusion of any personal desires. This is because individual goals and lusts are conducive to disunity – each person has a different goal and there is a likelihood that each person’s goal may clash with others. However, when everyone’s ultimate focus is on serving God, then all their distinct natures can be directed to the same goal. It was essential that the Jewish people totally focus their attention on receiving the Torah, and not on any selfish goals, so that they could receive the Torah in the optimum fashion.

Two vital lessons emerge from these ideas. One is the importance of unity, but seemingly of equal import is that unity does not mean that everyone has the same role and identical strengths. For if that were the case, then the Jewish people would not be able to fulfil their myriad responsibilities as the Chosen People. Some people are more suited to learning, others to helping people, yet others through teaching, and so on. Likewise, there are different ways to serve God, as epitomized by different streams, such as Jews of Lithuanian origins, Chassidim, and Sefardim. Each stream provides their own unique flavor to the Jewish nation, and this contributes to its totality

The Gemara in Taanit drives home these ideas: It tells us that in the future, God will form a circle of righteous men. The Divine Presence will be in the middle of the circle and everyone will point to the middle of the circle and say “This is the God who we longed for.” The commentaries note that the righteous will be in the shape of a circle. They explain that every point on the circle is equidistant from its center. No place is closer and no place is farther. The Gemara is referring to a future time when all the fruitless disputes will be a thing of the past. In that time, God will make a circle and sit in the middle and all the righteous on the circle – from all the different “camps” – will point to the center and see that they were all worshipping the same G-d, and they will see that everyone is equidistant. Everyone is in a different point on the circle, but no one is closer than anyone else. May we all merit to find our unique role in serving God, and work with everyone else to help the Jewish people fulfil their role.

  1. Emet L’Yaakov, Bamidbar, 1:1.
  2. Rashi, Shemos, 19:2.