East, south, west, and north. The book of Numbers/Bemidbar (“In a wilderness”) begins by organizing the Israelites before they set off from Mount Sinai. The first Torah portion, also called Bemidbar, lays out where each tribe camps and what order the tribes march in when they travel.
The Israelites camp in two concentric rings around the portable sanctuary called the Tent of Meeting. The outer ring is for the twelve tribes, excluding the Levites and counting Efrayim and Menasheh (named after Joseph’s sons) as two separate tribes; that way the ring can be divided into four quadrants, with three tribes camping in each cardinal direction. (See my post Bemidbar: Tribes in Four Directions.)
Next God says that the Levite men will be responsible for the sanctuary, and camp in a protective inner circle around it.1
When the Israelites break camp and set out, the three tribes camping to the east march first, then the three tribes to the south, then the Levites in the middle (carrying the disassembled pieces of the sanctuary), followed by the three tribes to the west, and finally the three tribes to the north.2
These camping and marching orders have little to do with where the tribes eventually settle in the “promised land”. But the allocation of the Levites in the four quadrants of the inner ring may be related to double meanings of the Hebrew words for east, south, west, and north.
The eastern part of the inner ring is where the leaders of the people as a whole camp with their families: the prophet Moses and the priests Aaron, Elazar, and Itamar.
Those camping in front of the sanctuary keidmah, in front of the Tent of Meeting mizrachah, [shall be] Moses and Aaron and his sons, watching over the duties of the holy place, as a duty to the Israelites. (Numbers/Bemidbar 3:38)
keidmah (קֵדְמָה) = to the east. From the root verb kadam (קָדַם) = came toward, went first, confronted, preceded. Kedem, קֶדֶם = east, front, origin, ancient time.
mizrachah (מִזרָחָה) = to the east. Mizrach, מִזְּרָח = east, sunrise. (From the root verb zarach (זָרַח) = shone forth.)
The east is where the sun rises and God’s world began; it represents birth and the past. The garden of Eden is in kedem, the east or the ancient past.3 The entrances into the holy courtyard, into the Tent of Meeting, and into the back chamber called the Holy of Holies, are all in their eastern walls, implying that the presence of God faces east. Moses and the priests camp just outside the courtyard gate. They must serve as the doorway between God and the people, passing on God’s words to the people and the people’s worship to God.
When the Israelites travel, everything in the sanctuary must be packed up and carried, from the gate of the courtyard to the ark in the Holy of Holies. The priests do the most dangerous packing.
Aaron and his sons shall come in at the breaking of camp and take down the screening curtain and cover the ark of the testimony with it. (Numbers 4:5)
The ark is the most sacred object; God speaks from the empty space above it. It stands in the back chamber of the tent, the Holy of Holies. No one may enter that small room except Moses and the high priest, and the high priest may enter only on Yom Kippur. (See my post Acharey Mot & Shemini: So He Will Not Die.) So how can all three priests go in and cover the ark? Perhaps when they take down the curtain separating that inner chamber from the rest of the Tent of Meeting, the Holy of Holies ceases to exist.
The priests must cover the ark with three layers of wrappings, so no one can see it. The priests must also cover the lampstand, the gold incense altar, the bread table, and the copper altar for animal and grain offerings, as well as all their utensils.4 (See my post Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred.)
Only after the sacred objects are wrapped in multiple layers and the priests have inserted their carrying-poles can the Levites come and carry them away.
The other three quadrants of the inner ring of the camp are assigned to the Levites, who are divided into three clans. Each clan is descended from one of the original Levi’s three sons: Kehat, Geirshon, and Merari. (Moses and Aaron are also grandsons of Kehat,5 but by this time they are not counted among the Levites.)
The families of the sons of Kehat shall camp along the side of the sanctuary teymanah. (Numbers/Bemidbar 3:29)
teymanah (תֵּימָנָה) = to the south. (From yamin = right hand, the hand of favor and power.)
When one faces east, the south is on one’s right. The Kehatites serve as the right hand of the priests, trusted to carry the most sacred things.
And their duties [shall be] the ark and the table and the lampstand and the altars and the holy utensils that they keep in them, and the curtain [at the tent entrance], and all their service. (Numbers 3:31)
Aaron and his sons shall finish covering the holy objects and all the holy utensils at the breaking of camp. And after this the sons of Kehat shall come to carry them away; and they must not touch the holy items or they will die. These are the burdens of the sons of Kehat regarding the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers 4:15)
And they shall not enter to see the holy as it is swallowed up [by the coverings], or they will die. (Numbers 4:20)
The items kept inside the Tent of Meeting are too dangerous for the Kehatites to touch or even see. They can only lift them by their carrying poles after the priests have wrapped each one in cloth and leather.
The families of the Geirshonites shall camp behind the sanctuary, yamah. (Numbers 3:23)
yamah (יָמָּה) = to the west; toward the (Mediterranean) sea. (Yam, יָם = sea.)
The west wall of the Tent of Meeting is the back, behind the ark in the Holy of Holies, at the opposite end from the entrance. West is the direction of both the sea and the setting sun. It represents the future, including death. The Geirshonites camp behind the sanctuary, in the west, to protect it from any encroachment in the rear.
In this week’s Torah portion, Naso (“Lift”), the Geirshonites are assigned the duty of dismantling, carrying, and reassembling the fabric of the Tent of Meeting: its roof coverings, its cloth walls, and the cloth walls of the open courtyard around it.
This is the service of the duties of the Geirshonites … They shall carry the tent-cloths of [the walls of] the sanctuary and the roof-covering of the Tent of Meeting, and the leather covering that is above and over it, and the curtain at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; and the fabric-walls of the courtyard and the curtain at the gate of the courtyard that surrounds the sanctuary and the altar; and their cords, and all their equipment … (Numbers 4:24-26)
… Merari … along the side of the sanctuary tzafonah they shall camp. (Numbers 3:35)
tzafonah צָפֺנָה)) = toward the north. From tzafan, צָפַן = hid, stored up, treasured.
The sons of Merari … this is their duty of carrying, for all their service in the Tent of Meeting: the planks of the sanctuary and its cross-pieces and its posts and its sockets; and the posts of the courtyard all around, and their sockets and their pegs and their cords, including all of their tools for all of their duty; and you shall assign, by name, the tools for their duty and their burden. (Numbers 4:31-32)
In other words, the Merarites disassemble, carry, and reassemble the framework of the Tent of Meeting and of the courtyard wall.
Four Duties for Leaders
Out of all those who camp in the inner ring around the sanctuary, the priests have the most perilous duty; they must touch the holiest objects in order to wrap them for transport. They are also responsible for what the Levites do. Their place is in the east, toward the ancient time, the origin of humankind.
Today, if we take on religious leadership, we need to remember that some people look up to us, and look to us for guidance. Whatever we model, as well as teach, will have a deep effect on other human beings. This is indeed a perilous duty.
The Kohatites have the next most dangerous job, carrying the holy objects without touching or seeing them directly. Their place is in the south, at the right hand of the priests.
Today, when we choose to follow a religious leader and serve at their right hand, we receive the gift of extra learning, and the honor of reflected greatness. But we are also responsible for carrying and passing on the leader’s teachings in a way that continues their good work—and does not degenerate into the idol-worship of mere appearances.
The Geirshonites are responsible for roofs and walls. Their place is to the west, toward the sea.
If we put up a psychological roof, how long can we operate in the mundane world without worrying about any inscrutable mysteries, anything that might be called God? When will a change in our lives force us to break camp and take down the roof?
What if we put up an inner wall against something we do not want to face? Like the wall of water that let the Israelites cross the Reed Sea and then crashed down on the Egyptian army, our psychological wall might crumble and drown us in reality.
If we hope to serve our communities, or the divine spirit inside us, we must be able to take down our own roofs and walls when we need to.
The Merarites are responsible for the supporting framework of the sanctuary. Their place is to the north, the place of hidden treasure.
Knowledge and insight are among the treasures that are often hidden from us. We cannot even fully know ourselves. The only way to receive a hidden insight is to dismantle the structure of our beliefs, carry the pieces to a new place, wherever the divine pillar of cloud touches down. Then we can erect a new framework of theories and supporting beliefs.
Sometimes we can follow leaders who have been able to reframe their lives. Sometimes we must become those leaders.
Whenever we have to rebuild our lives, we are called to do the work of the priests and Levites in all four directions. First, like the Merarites, we must erect a new framework, a new set of ideas about life that will support us and allow us to uncover more hidden insights. Next, like the Geirshonites, we must hang walls and drape roofs, separating our interior space from the exterior world—while recognizing that the barriers are fluid. Then, like the Kehatites, we set down our most sacred convictions in their proper places, so they are no longer burdens. And finally, like the priests, we unwrap what is holy, revealing the golden treasures of our souls just enough so we can influence the world for the good.
(An earlier version of this essay was published in July 2011.)
- The Levite men officially replace the first-born males of each tribe as the men who are dedicated to God in Numbers 3:40-45.
- Numbers 2:1-31.
- Genesis 2:8.
- Numbers 4:7-14.
- Exodus 6:16-26.
- According to Canaanite literature, Mount Tzafon north of Ugarit (in present-day Syria) was where the god Baal built his palace. Psalm 48:3 equates Mt. Tzafon with Mt. Zion.