Command the Children of Israel to send out of the camp all with an eruption (tzara'at), or discharge (zav) and whomever is defiled by the dead. Both male and female shall you send out, and they shall not defile their camps amidst which I dwell. (5:3)
It is imperative that a person afflicted with tzara'at, suffering from an abnormal discharge known as zav, or one who has come in contact with a dead body (tamei la-nefesh), be sent from the camp. These three cases, know in halakhic terminology as avot ha-tuma (fathers of contamination) are severe cases of defilement. For these avot ha-tuma, the Torah requires isolation. The text concludes: "Amidst which I dwell" (5:3). It would appear that the thrice-reiterated command to "send out" the defiled (5:1,2,2) stems from the presence of the Divine in the camp.
The very location of the passage is curious. The Book of Vayikra, the book of the Torah normally considered dedicated to issues of sanctity, holiness and defilement, indeed contains both a lengthy discourse on the laws of tzara'at (Vayikra 13:1-14:57) and a segment on the laws of discharge (15:1-15). While the laws of those defiled by the dead are mentioned in Sefer B'midbar (19:1-22). The material would seem to belong in Sefer Vayikra, the book of holiness, sanctity, and defilement.
So, the Sages wonder about the placement of this particular segment of the larger "defilement code," laws pertaining to sanctity and holiness, at this particular point in the Book of B'midbar.
In formulating the command to expel the metzora, zav, and tamei la-nefesh from the camp, the Torah employs the phrase, "Amidst which I dwell" (5:3). The core of the phrase consists of two terms, shokhen, rooted in the stem sh.kh.n and meaning rest or dwell, and betokham, meaning amidst or among. This formulation should be familiar. It is a slight variation on the phrase used to describe the purpose of building the tabernacle. In Shemot 25:8 G-d informs Moshe of the ultimate end goal of constructing the Mishkan:
And they shall make me a sanctuary (mikdash) so that I may dwell amidst them (ve-shakhanti betokham).
The sanctuary is the dwelling place of the Divine presence. The most common term for the sanctuary, mishkan, comprises yet another variation of the stem sh.kh.n, meaning dwell or rest. In a similar vein, the Book of Shemot and the completion of the construction of the Mishkan, closes with the image of the Divine cloud, symbolizing the Divine presence, resting upon the Mishkan (Shemot 40:34-35). In this light, the phrase utilized at the end or our parasha, "Amidst which I dwell (asher ani shokhen betokham)" (5:3), is perhaps a technical reference to the Mishkan, the abode of the Divine presence located at the center of the Israelite camp.
Whoever touches a dead body and does not purify himself, defiles the Mishkan of G-d, his soul shall be cut off from Israel. (B'midbar 19:13)
While the text here does not explicitly refer to trespass or physical contact, that does appear to be the intent. As Rashi (19:13) comments: "if he enters". Once again, tuma and the presence of the Divine are inherently contradictory categories. Defilement prohibits one from approaching the Mishkan.
Consequently, some have interpreted the expulsion of the metzora, zav and tamei la-nefesh from the camp as a pragmatic matter, that their presence in the camp may lead to their approaching the sanctuary or trespassing upon its grounds. As already noted, this is defined by the Torah as "defiling the Mishkan of G-d" (19:13). Therefore the three severe avot ha-tuma are sent from the camp, so that they do not trespass the border of the Divine.
A cursory reading of the first four chapters of B'midbar are often thought of as an accounting, concerned primarily with numbers, and rendering for us the precise number of Israelites and Levites numerous times. However, this is only part of the story. The chapters should also be understood as a sustained discourse upon the physical arrangement of the Israelite camp.
On some level, it is no surprise that the numberings and consequent arrangements of the camp detailed in the census narrative (1:1-4:49) are followed by a legal segment detailing the expulsion of the metzora, zav and tamei la-nefesh from the camp. These laws of encampment follow naturally on the heels of the narrative detailing the arrangement of the camp. Both are variations on the theme of hilkhot ha-machaneh, the laws of the arranging of the camp. But there is more to it than this.
Early on in the census narratives, the Torah informs us that the Levites will be counted separately (1:49). This is due to their unique function as servants of the Mishkan (1:50). In elaborating upon this point, the Torah informs us that the Levites are to encamp around the Mishkan so that "there will be no wrath (ketzef) upon the Children of Israel" (1:53).
Immediately afterwards, in the conclusion of the verse, the Levites are charged with guarding the Mishkan. After all, the Torah informs us that "the stranger" or non-Levite who attempts to participate in the transport of the Mishkan is subject to the death penalty (1:51). To put all of this together, part of the Levite's role consists of guarding the Mishkan from the possibility of encroachment. Just as the census narrative (1:1-4:49) is concerned with the possibility of trespass, so too the encampment code (5:1-3), which immediately follows, is concerned with the possibility of trespass.
This leads us to an even deeper thematic element. Throughout the census narrative, the Torah focuses not just on the physical arrangement of the camp, but also on the functional arrangement of the camp. The Levites are counted separately and encamp around the Mishkan because of their unique function as servants of the sanctuary (1:48-53). These functions devolve upon the Levites by virtue of their being selected by God to replace the first-borns, those who might have otherwise had the privilege of serving the sanctuary (3:11-13). As the text emphasizes, the mishmeret, or charge, function, and duty of the Levites is in fact the mishmeret, or charge of the Israelites, one they (the Levites) carry out as replacements or perhaps representatives of the Israelites (3:8-9).
None of this is coincidental. The physical and functional arrangement relation to Mishkan described above should be understood as reflecting a particular spiritual arrangement and relationship. The Mishkan constitutes the dwelling place of the Divine and the location of Divine service. As such, the physical and functional arrangement of the Israelite camp in the desert naturally revolves around the Mishkan. The structure of the community must have holiness and sanctity at the center. But it must also be concerned about how to preserve sanctity in its midst and the implications of the Divine presence in the camp.
As such, once again it is no wonder that the narrative depicting the physical, functional and spiritual arrangement of the camp (1:1-4:49) is followed by a segment of the laws of defilement and holiness, the Divine directive to expel the three avot ha-tuma from the camp. Both involve the themes of sanctity, relation to sanctity and the protection of sanctity. In contrast to our original assumption, the opening of B'midbar is in fact also about some of the key themes of Sefer Vayikra. It too is concerned with sanctity, relation to sanctity and the safeguarding of sanctity.
However, haven't the Levites already been commanded to guard the sanctuary? In light of the Levites mandate, can the pragmatic concern of trespass be considered a viable interpretation? Or is thee something more? Let us take a look again at the text. The precise language of the rationale provided by the Torah reads as follows:
And they shall not defile their camps amidst which I dwell. (5:3)
While this can be interpreted as a technical reference to the presence of the Mishkan at the center of the camp, the text makes no explicit reference to the Mishkan and nor do we have any reference to any pragmatic issues of trespass. A simpler reading of the text would seem to indicate that G-d's presence is located in the camp itself. For this reason, these three severely defiled individuals must be removed from the camp. In point of fact, the Ramban (5:2) adopts this interpretation. To paraphrase the Ramban's terminology:
"It is necessary for the camp to be holy and suited for the resting of the divine presence."
But by what virtue can the camp be said to be holy or to comprise a place where the Divine presence rests? Let's turn our attention to the story of the degalim, the standards around which the Israelites encamped, which should help elucidate the point.
In introducing the degalim, the Torah refers to "every man by his standard, with the signs of his father's house, around the tent of meeting shall they encamp" (2:2). But what are these standards? What is the point of the reference to the "sign of his father's house"? For that matter, what is the point of the tribes being grouped into four standards, each consisting of three tribes and then arrayed around the Mishkan?
Based upon a Midrash found in B'midbar Rabba 2:6, and in accord with associations already defined in other parts of the Torah, the Ibn Ezra formulates a relationship between each tribe and its respective form. For the standard of Yehuda, the form is a lion, in line with the statement of Ya'akov in his blessing to Yehuda that "Yehuda is a lion" (Bereishit 49:9). For Reuven, the shape pictured upon the standard is a man. It was Reuven who found the dudaim, the plant carrying the power of fertility and the ability to make a man (Bereishit 30:14).
Based upon the blessing of Moshe (Devarim 33:17), the standard of Ephraim carries a picture of an ox, and finally, although the source is obscure, the Ibn Ezra maintains that the standard of Dan bore the image of an eagle. The exegesis of the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban regarding the images depicted upon the four chief standards grouped around the Mishkan creates a fascinating parallel.
The Book of Yechezkel, in describing Yechezkel's vision of the merkava, the divine chariot upon which the Divine throne and presence rides, depicts a vision of four heavenly creatures who comprise the chariot. These creatures have four faces, the face of a man, the face of a lion, the face of a ox and the face of an eagle (Yechezkel 1:10). But these are of course the images found on the standards of Yehuda, Reuven, Ephraim and Dan. As the Ibn Ezra formulates things:
"The degalim resembled the keruvim, the divine creatures seen by Yechezkel" (2:2).
In a similar vein, the Ramban (2:3) approvingly cites a Midrash claiming that G-d created four directions in the world, surrounded his throne with four heavenly creatures to bear his throne, and in accord arranged for Moshe the degalim. While the theology may remain somewhat obscure, the literary claim should be obvious. The encampment of Israel, the arrangement of the tribes into four degalim surrounding the Mishkan, is meant to parallel the imagery of Yechezkel's vision.
Just as the heavenly creatures surround and bear the throne of the Divine, so too the camp of Israel surrounds and bears the Mishkan, the seat of the Divine presence. The theological or metaphysical significance of the parallel should be interpreted accordingly. Just as the Divine creatures of Yechezkel's vision accompany and bear the throne of G-d upon its heavenly journey, so too the camp of Israel accompanies and bears the throne of G-d upon its earthly journey.
While the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban do not make the point, Yechezkel 1:24 compares the sound of the creatures and the divine chariot to the sound of a "camp." In addition to this connection to the opening of B'midbar, Yechezkel's vision of the Divine first manifests itself as "a great cloud and fire" (1:4). This of course is the very image of the Divine presence that accompanies Israel and its camp in the desert.
A cloud and fire cover the Mishkan upon its completion (Shemot 40:34-38) and during the ensuing journey (B'midbar 9:15-16). This dual parallel between the vision narrative in Yechezkel and the encampment narrative in B'midbar implies that we confront the same story in both cases, the transport of the Divine presence by G-d's merkava, or chariot. The process occurs in both the heavenly and earthly realms.
But there is more to it than just parallel processes. The second book of Shemuel refers to the ark as "the ark of G-d, whose name is called the L-rd of hosts (tzeva'ot) who dwells upon the keruvim" (II Shemuel 6:2). The creatures of Yechezkel's vision are known as keruvim. They possess an earthly counterpart, the keruvim stationed on top of the ark, whose outstretched arms form the throne of G-d.
In the language of Shemuel, G-d can be said to "dwell upon" the keruvim and ark. But as fitting the King of kings, G-d is also accompanied by hosts or assemblies, known as tzeva'ot. The Divine chariot is born and accompanied on its journey by the heavenly angelic assembly. But what is the earthly counterpart of G-d's heavenly host?
The resolution to this question may lie back in Sefer Shemot. During his dialogue with Moshe that proceeds the unleashing of the plagues upon Egypt, G-d informs Moshe, "I will lay my hand upon Egypt, and bring out my hosts (tzivotai), my people, the Children of Israel from Egypt" (Shemot 7:4). Similarly, the story that opens B'midbar constitutes another story of G-d's tzava, his host or assembly, the Children of Israel. It is in fact the story of his earthly host or assembly, which escorts, accompanies and bears His presence as earthly counterpart to His heavenly host.
Therefore, the entire camp of Israel constitutes a microcosm of the heavenly macrocosm if you will, a parallel construction to the Divine realm. This is the point of the organization according to standards. As such the camp serves to bear the Divine presence, not just in the Mishkan, upon and between the keruvim, but in the entire camp itself. The census narratives (1:1-4) are not merely about counting, or physical, functional or even spiritual organization. Rather they also form a type of organization, where the camp is organized as an echo or copy of the Divine realm, where the Divine presence is brought into the entire camp.
In light of the above interpretation of the degalim as a kind of merkava and the organization of the camp as far more than a mere physical arrangement, we no longer need wonder about the language of the rationale provided by the Torah for the removal of the metzora, zav and tamei la-nefesh from the camp. Likewise we no longer need wonder about the meaning of the Ramban's claim that "it is necessary for the camp to be holy and suited for the resting of the divine presence." As a copy of the divine merkava and resting place of the Divine presence, the entire camp is holy.
Consequently, the severe cases of defilement, those defiled by tzara'at, zav, or death must be removed from the camp. The laws in question, and the placement of our short code of defilement and sanctity (5:1-3), follow naturally on the heels of the census narratives (1:1-4:49), the organization of the camp as tzeva'ot Hashem, the earthly assembly bearing and animated by the Divine presence.
Finally, from this perspective the opening of B'midbar is more than just a continuation of Sefer Vayikra and its key concerns of holiness, defilement and the sanctuary. In a certain sense, Sefer B'mdibar is a continuation of a key theme central to the book of Shemot. As mentioned earlier, Shemot 25:8 reports the true telos, goal, of constructing the Mishkan, "And I will dwell in the midst of them," and the book ends with the arrival of the Divine presence in the Mishkan (40:34-35).
But in some sense, as the beginning of B'midbar reminds us, the Divine presence has in fact arrived amidst the entire community of Israel. The end of Shemot is only the beginning of the story. Sefer B'midbar is in fact where this theme plays out, the story of what happens when G-d dwells in the very midst of the Children of Israel.
This was how it was in the beginning, before sin was introduced into the world through our disobedence to the Divine command. This desire, to dwell once again in the midst of His people, of course culminates in the person and work of Y'shua the Messiah about Whom John writes:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with G-d, and the Word was G-d. He was in the beginning with God . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt (lit. tabernacled) among us, and we beheld His glory (shechina), the glory (shechina) as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. (cf. John 1)
And of course, let's not forget how everything wraps up at the end the age:
*I am indebted to Rabbi Chanoch Waxman for providing many of the ideas and themes presented here.