Parashat Bamidbar, Numbers 1:1-4:20
In the parsha, we read of the instructions to Israel on how to camp and travel. They were arranged around the central point, the mishkan, the tabernacle. Each tribe had its place. More than that, each group of three tribes had their places. A degel is often translated as a flag. In reality, it is a noun form of the verb, lidgol, which means to conglomerate or to form a large group made up of smaller groups.
The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Pekudai) says that the constellations in Heaven camp around the sun, to correspond to the tribes around the Mishkan. Each tribe corresponds to one constellation. What was the purpose of these degalim? Why was it so important that the tribes themselves camp separately and then that they join in these distinct degalim.
Actually, this question just adds to the general question of how the counting was done to begin with. Why was it so important to count each person “by name”? Or rather “by the count of the names.” Was not the main point to count the total number? Why was it so important, on top of that, to count members of a family, a clan, “by their heads” and “all those who go out to war.” For some of them the word is added pekudav, which usually means “their numbers.” What is the meaning of this repetition?
Furthermore, the Torah repeats the entire list over and over again for each tribe. There must be some deeper significance to this.
Rashi comments that this shows how precious we are to Hashem — he is always counting us, like one who counts his money. However, one counting his money is usually not interested in the individual coins. He is more interested in the totals. Perhaps one who collects coins counts the individual specimen, but he is not interested in the total at all.
That is the point. Hashem values each individual Israelite but only as a part of the larger group of Israel. Hashem has His 600,000 individuals. Not just one, or two, but 600,000 of them. He counts each precious soul separately, by name. No two are quite the same. Just as each has a distinct face, distinct thoughts and experiences, a separate name, a separate father and mother and family and clan and tribe, each has a separate destiny. Each has a separate role. Pekudav can mean roles.
The sefer is called Chumash Hapekudim, based on the two times Israel is counted, at the beginning, soon after leaving Egypt, and at the end, right before entering Israel. It could also be called the book of different roles. Each person has a distinct role. Moreover, each tribe has its own specialty, it characteristics. These were the characteristics of each tribal patriarch. Yaakov recognized them this way when he blessed them before his death. Their descendants reflect these attributes.
Pikud also means to check, to investigate or analyze. Hashem checks on each person, to see whether he or she is fulfilling their true roles. It also means to appoint, where each is given a job to do within the whole nation. The sefer can be seen to teach of the development of each separate role.
Once each has realized his potential, or at least understood his place and his job, the most beautiful expression of this is when the entire set of individuals join in a harmonious orchestra. The degalim represent the way the tribes were to interact to produce this harmony. This was both when they traveled and when they camped.
Later in Parshas Balak, Bilaam looks over Israel, and sees the people “resting to its tribes.” He is overcome with divine inspiration. The rabbis say that he saw them pitching their tents in a way that no one saw into their neighbor’s tent. What was so special about this? They all understood their own roles. No one needed to see what the neighbor was doing, so that he could copy it. Imagine two musicians in an orchestra, who are supposed to be playing a harmony. If each would try to copy the other, the entire harmony would be lost. This is the importance of the specific arrangement of the degalim.
Rabbi Shimon Silver is spiritual leader of Young Israel of Greater Pittsburgh. This column is provided by the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.