This week’s parsha sets out how the people encamped in the desert, according to their tribes, around the Tabernacle. This reveals a foundational truth in Judaism, and that is for human beings to survive and to thrive in this world, they need order – on a physical level, on an emotional level and on a spiritual level as well.
This week’s parsha starts a new book, Bamidbar – “in the desert” – the fourth book of the Five Books of Moses, which discusses the life of the Jewish people in the desert. We know that after the Jewish people received the Torah, they spent forty years in the desert before going into the Land of Israel. During that time, they were given specific instructions on how they should encamp there. This week’s portion sets out how the people encamped, according to their tribes, around the Tabernacle.
There were three major zones: the machaneh haShechina – the camp of the Divine Presence – the holiest section where the Tabernacle stood; the machaneh leviya – the camp of the Levites – where all the families of the tribe of Levi encamped; and the machaneh Yisrael – the general camp of the twelve tribes. Each tribe had its unique flag and a designated area; no tribe could relocate to a different area.
Picture the scene: the Tabernacle is in the middle, the priests, the Levites and the rest of the tribes of Israel are all encamped in perfect order, according to their flags. Hashem commanded them to live in clearly demarcated areas, each tribe according to its flag, in a precise, structured way. Why was such order necessary? Why could they not simply live wherever they wanted?
The value of structure
Reb Yerucham Levovitz, one of the great educators in the Mir Yeshiva, says that we can learn a very important lesson from the way G-d instructed the people to encamp in the desert, and that is the importance of order, what we call seder in Hebrew. Seder is such an important value in Judaism; indeed, it is the bedrock of other values.
Reb Yerucham explains the importance of seder with the following analogy: Suppose you are making a necklace of pearls. At the end of the strand you tie a knot, to keep the pearls from slipping off. Reb Yerucham says that the value of order is like that knot keeping the pearls on the string. The individual pearls represent the many values of Judaism – devotion to Hashem, prayer, kindness, charity, Shabbos, learning Torah, etc. What holds these values together is the knot at the end of the string of pearls – structure and order.
Human beings need structure on every level of existence. In his classic work, Alei Shur, Rav Shlomo Wolbe, one of the great disciples of Reb Yerucham, explains the importance of seder, saying that it applies on every level of human functioning. We function best as human beings when there is order. Even our sleep has a pattern to it. Human beings were designed with sleep patterns – hence jet-lag takes a while to overcome, because our sleep patterns have been disrupted. Sleep requires order; eating requires order; the body works best when it functions according to a certain order.
This applies in the physical realm as well as in the emotional realm. Rav Wolbe explains how important it is to keep one’s emotions on an even keel and not be prone to extremes, thus maintaining a balance and ensuring mental health. On a spiritual level too, there is structure and order to the way that we do things: We pray at certain times, bensch at certain times. There is a structure and order to suit human nature, because human beings have been designed to operate within a structured framework.
The Gemara discusses how one of the questions a person is asked in heaven is: “Did you set aside time to learn Torah?” A person is not asked whether he learned Torah, but whether he set aside time to learn Torah, because there have to be set times for everything: When a person learns; when a person davens; when, how and how much a person gives charity. All of this structure and order goes to the heart of how important the concept of seder is in the philosophy of Judaism.
Order sustains the world
Rav Wolbe quotes a passage from the Talmud, which explains the importance of seder. (Tractate Sota 49a) The Talmud says that in times of exile there will be persecution and suffering. The Talmud then asks: “If so, what will ensure the world’s survival?” The Gemara answers: “On the sanctity of order and on the Kaddish said after learning Torah.”
Rashi explains that “the sanctity of order” refers to the “holy holy holy” that we say just after the Amidah. Although we recite this passage twice before – once in the blessings of the Shema and once in the repetition of the Amidah – this Gemara refers specifically to the “kadosh kadosh kadosh” we recite in Uva leTzion, because following that passage, we say the translation of it in Aramaic, combining prayer – sanctifying G-d’s Name – with Torah learning. Thus, Rashi says this Gemara is about the learning of Torah as well as the sanctification of G-d’s Name. This is why the Gemara also says that the world stands on the Kaddish customarily recited after learning Torah. Rashi explains that this refers to the structure and the order of learning Torah and the structure and the order of sanctifying G-d’s Name; order is what sustains the world.
The Gemara continues, quoting the verse: “The land darkened like the darkness of the shadow of death [because there was] no order.” A world without order is like the darkness of death. The Gemara says that where there is order, there is life. For human beings to survive and to thrive in this world, they need order – on a physical level, on an emotional level and on a spiritual level as well.
Structure in prayer
The Hebrew name for our prayer book is Siddur, from the root seder. Praying to Hashem is about inspiration; it is an emotional and spiritual experience, what would seem to be the antithesis of order and structure. Why, then, is our prayer book given this name?
Judaism teaches us that we can only achieve inspiration when there is a structure and an order to life, and that includes prayer. If our praying were dependent solely on the inspiration of the moment, some mornings we would wake up inspired, feeling close to G-d, and then we would have uplifting prayers; other mornings we would wake up cynical, tired, sick or whatever it may be, and not be in the mood to pray. What the Siddur gives us, what seder gives us, is the structure, the formulae of words that are holy and provide the framework for our emotions, for our spiritual connection. It is the order that brings out the inspiration. On days when we are more inspired, the order channels our inspiration; on days when we are less inspired, we still follow a certain order; it is still there, and we need it in all endeavours in life, not only in prayer. It is present in marriage, in building relationships, building a business, helping people – whatever we do.
Take charity as an example. We do not wait until we feel generous to give charity to the poor. Torah law dictates when to give charity, as well as how and how much to give. There is a structure and an order because this is what we need to function. This goes to the heart of what it means to be a human being.
The perfect order of the world
Taking this idea one step further, the Maharal of Prague explains that this is what the Midrash means when it says that G-d looked into the Torah and created the world. The Maharal says that the Torah, being the blueprint of the world, is the underlying order that holds everything together. Hashem did not simply create a world; He created a world according to a certain order, and we see this in the precision of the world. Each species has its identity, its food, its chain of existence. Each part of the world, each climate, each ecosystem, is precise. Everything is done with absolute precision. (This is why considering random evolution as a theory to explain this perfectly ordered world is untenable.) And just as G-d created the physical world with a certain structure and order, so too did He do this for the moral and spiritual world. The Torah is the structure and order that holds together the moral and the spiritual world.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avot says that G-d created the world with ten statements. The Maharal explains that the number ten represents unified order and structure. Numbers one through nine are unique, disparate numbers, while ten is not a new number, but rather brings together the other nine into one unit. We live in a decimal world, where most things comprise units of ten. G-d created the world with a certain coding and the base of that coding is the number ten, the number which unifies everything. G-d created many different things that seem separate, but are actually brought together as one unified whole. He is the unity that holds the world together, and the Torah is the blueprint, the framework within which the world is held together. The Torah is the seder, the order of the world. The concept of order and structure applies at every level of existence; it is the binding force that holds together everything we do.
And this is how we can understand the importance of the encampments in the desert. Each tribe had its designated flag and location, representing how important seder is in Judaism.