In this week's parshah, we learn that the 4-line formation of the tribes around the tabernacle mimics the formation of angels around the Heavenly Throne in shemayim (Badmidbar Rabbah). In turn, the colour of the tribal flags corresponded to their tribal stones on the Choshen Mishpat. In light of these associations with the divine, the question remains: how did the formations provide insight into the core qualities of the tribes?
When we look back at the beracha that Yaacov/Yisroel bestowed upon each tribe on his deathbed, the over-arching impression is of rebuke. Here, in his final moments, a father was summarizing each of his son's various shortcomings, with the occasional allusion to a son's potential strengths. Yet the true meaning of each "rebuke" was in fact to illustrate where each son's strengths lay. To rephrase, if a given son overcame the middot that caused these previous shortcomings, the son would find strength in that same quality. It is the channeling of the given energy, and the turning a negative into a positive, which is the wish of any parent for their child. So to was this true of Yaacov/Yisroel's portraits of each tribe.
These key characteristics of the tribes carries over into their formations around the mishkan. Each line included three tribes, and these lines were the same as the ones drawn by Yaacov himself for escorting his body to Eretz Yisroel for burial (Rashi). In essence, the alignment of the tribes was prescribed by Yaacov through ruach hakodesh in alignment with the key characteristics of the various brothers. Who else but a parent is capable of recognizing which alliances between his children will reap them moral and spiritual benefit? And it is these alliances that we see alluded to in these formations.
To briefly summarize, the four formations were/are the following:
- Yehuda (Monarch), Issachar (Torah), Zebulun (Support of Torah)
- Reuven (Repentance) , Shimeon (Men of the Sword), Gad (Strength)
- Ephraim, Menasheh (Spiritual Strength/Descendants of the Patriarchs), Benjamin (Fearless Warrior)
- Dan (Hidden), Asher (Illumination), Naphtali (Beautiful [Spiritual] Sayings)
What becomes apparent immediately is that in each of the four categories, the characteristic of one supports/counteracts the characteristic of the others in their respective formation (Ramban). In turn, the ranking (1, 2, 3, 4) implies the relative status of each in the klal (monarchy versus army versus commerce, and so on). Each brother played their respective part in the family's story, as it were, and together formed a cohesive unit by following their "destined" paths.
Yet how does a parent instill in a child a sense of urgency regarding their destined lot in life? How can a parent encourage their child to flourish versus throw away their ingrained strengths, chasve shalom? To paraphrase some thoughts from Rav Twerski, shlita, it is by demonstrating to each child, in the way that is appropriate for the child, what the parent feels is important. And in order for these teachings to resonate with the child, the parent must demonstrate that the parent sincerely believes in what they are espousing by consistently, genuinely remaining true to their viewpoints. By understanding that each son was unique and needed to be spoken to in a manner befitting the son's mode of understanding, Yaacov helped each son focus on their assigned mission in life. These multiple missions were in turn associated with one another, as illustrated by the formations, to help each tribe to adhere to their respective mission after Yaacov's passing.
By drawing on these lessons hopefully even in this generation, when permissiveness and indulgence runs rampant, we can nurture the generations that follow to use their individual gifts to serve the klal, and by extension, Hashem. Good Shabbos!