Asher Shafrir
Former Shaliach in Melbourne


Sefer Bamidbar, the fourth book of the Torah, opens with a description of Am Yisrael’s camp in the desert. Our commentaries speculate why this is so. Or, more precisely, they wonder if the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar is connected to the end of Sefer Vayikra. Although some mefarshim indicate that the two chumashim are not related, others – such as the Ramban – assert that Sefer Bamidbar is, in fact, a continuation of Sefer Vayikra.

The Ramban explains that Sefer Vayikra teaches us how the Mishkan was built. Hence, Sefer Bamidbar, which portrays how Am Yisrael was ranged around the Mishkan, serves as a continuation of Sefer Vayikra. Moreover, Sefer Bamidbar describes the Mishkan’s impact on those around it.

In contrast, the Rashbam believes that Sefer Bamidbar opens with a description of the camp in order to show that Am Yisrael must prepare itself for conquering Eretz Yisrael. Just as an army gets ready and takes up battle positions prior to war’s onset, the nation must brace itself and array itself accordingly.

The difference between the Ramban and the Rashbam’s views recalls a famous dispute in the Gemara. The Amora’im argue as to the shape of machaneh Bnei Yisrael (the camp) while the nation was traveling. According to one opinion, the shvatim formed a box around the Mishkan. However, another opinion holds that they traveled in one long line and that the Mishkan was in the middle. If Sefer Bamidbar is meant to emphasize Am Yisrael’s inherent connection to the Mishkan, the camp should have resembled a box surrounding the Mishkan. However, if Sefer Bamidbar is a description of the nation on its way to Eretz Yisrael, the shvatim should have traveled in one long line.

This argument can teach us a valuable lesson. Throughout our lives, we are confronted with two vital missions. On one hand, we have goals and aspirations which we must try to achieve. Yet, on the other hand, our lives are filled with all sorts of important things – such as our families, our friends, our connection to Hashem, and many others – which do not necessarily help us reach our goals quickly. Instead, they encourage us to seize the moment rather than running towards the next objective. However, we must refrain from dedicating ourselves to one mission while neglecting the second, as the results may prove disastrous. Indeed, we are required to address both missions simultaneously: We must aspire towards greatness – just as the nation traveled in a straight line towards it objective – while focusing on life’s significant aspects “in real time” – just as the nation arranged themselves in a box around Beit Hashem. By studying Am Yisrael’s journeys through the desert, we can learn how to integrate these two imperative missions.