Parshat Bamidbar: Diversity within Communities

Parshat Bamidbar describes the layout of the camp of the twelve tribes around the mishkan. This is a springboard to contemplate the value of community, without uniformity. 

The Torah states that Bnei Yisrael should camp according to his “standard” (דגלו), under the “signs” (אתת) of their ancestral house. Rashi comments that these unique flags highlight the diversity of the tribes. The midrash Tanhuma teaches that this layout determined which tribes could influence each other. Korah from Kehat was next to Reuven, who they pulled into their attempt to sow discord. The midrash calls this: “woe to the wicked person and woe to his neighbor.” Conversely, Levi, containing Moshe and Aharon, was next to three tribes who became “great in Torah” — “fortunate is the righteous person and fortunate is his neighbor.” Meaning, we are influenced by our neighbors and those we choose to be surrounded by. Yet, the people encamped together. 

A similar idea arises in the context of communal prayer. The Talmudic source for minyan is based on a verbal analogy in Torah. Vayikra states that God should be sanctified “among” Bnei Yisrael. The word “among” is also used when God instructs Moshe to separate from “among” Korah’s rebellious community (edah). The word edah is also used in the story of the spies, from which the number ten is derived for minyan. The basis for communal prayer is derived from two groups of wrongdoers. Furthermore, Rambam writes that communal tefilla is always heard by God, even when there are sinners among them. The Kuzari takes a more positive approach to diversity within communal prayer. He writes that the strengths and weaknesses of each individual can be balanced out when praying together – the individual is like one limb within the necessary whole of the community, the body. 

These sources encourage openness and inclusiveness within communities and allows for people of varying religious commitments, or who feel less worthy, to feel a part of communal prayer. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson