Parshas Bamidbar: Knowing Where We Stand

This wee’ks Torah reading, Parshas Bamidbar, describes the census taken by Moshe and Aaron under God’s command, as well as describing the arrangement of the camp in the desert. The parsha uses the phrase, “Ish al machaneihu v’ish al diglo [each man at his encampment and each man at his banner].” (Numbers 1:52) The same phrase is also found in “Kol Mekadesh [All Who Sanctify],” one of the zemeiros [Shabbos songs] for Friday night:

All who sanctify the seventh [day, i.e., Shabbos] fittingly,
All who observe the Shabbos correctly from desecration,
His reward is very great in accordance with his efforts,
Each man at his encampment and each man at his banner.

We might ask what exactly is the reward implied in this phrase? Poetically, the author of the song is presumably simply referring to a camp [machaneh] as a symbol of a restful place. That is, he tells us that one who observes the Sabbath properly by abstaining from work is rewarded with a day of rest and comfort.

I would like to suggest another possible way to understand this.

In life we often find ourselves unsure of who we are and what we are supposed to be doing. People are constantly struggling to figure out what their purpose is. And even when we do think we have found the right path, we are constantly second guessing ourselves.

For the generation that came out of Egypt it was different. The Sh’chinah, Gods presence, visibly dwelt among them and they were lead by Moshe Rabbeinu who was in direct, face-to-face contact with the Almighty. Their role was clear. Even their physical location was divinely directed. They traveled as God directed and encamped as He directed. And the camp was arranged as He had instructed Moshe. If a person wasn’t sure where he needed to be, either physically or spiritually, he could simply look for the banner for his tribe, and he would immediately be able to find his place.

This, perhaps, is the blessing of Shabbos that the author intended. When we observe the Shabbos, we re-establish our connection to the divine and remind ourselves where we are supposed to be. Our banner is the Shabbos. And that is our reward: a Jew never has to suffer existential uncertainty, the banners of Shabbos and Torah show us our place.

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