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Reb Yaakov: Unity & Individuality

The 29th of Adar is the Yahrtzeit of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky (1891-1986). Born on the 21 Adar, in Dolhinov, he left for Minsk at the age of 11. Among his friends there were the future Rav Reuven Grozovsky, and the young Aaron Kotler. Shortly after Pesach in 1905, Reb Yaakov and Reb Aaron traveled to Slobodka to learn under the supervision of the Alter of Slobodka. Reb Yaakov also learned in Slutzk. During World War I he took refuge in Lomza in the yeshiva of Reb Yechiel Michel Gordon. On 22 Sivan, 1919, he married the Rebbetzin Ita Ettel. On 11th Av 1937, he left for America. In 1945, he accepted the request of Reb Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz that he take up the position of rosh yeshiva in Mesivta Torah Vodaas, a position he kept for the rest of his life. His chidushim were printed in his seforim Emes LeYaakov, on Torah and on Shas. As he requested, he was buried in Brooklyn, since he pointed out that most of his family live in America and would not always be able to travel to his kever in Eretz Yisrael. From this, his last request we learn yet another chapter of his feelings for others.

“Every man of the Bnai Yisroel shall camp by his own standard (flag), with the ensigns of their father’s house; far off around the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting) they shall camp” (2:2). The Jewish people were instructed to pitch their tents in a specific formation. Each shaivet, tribe, had a flag to represent it. Rashi explains that the color of each standard corresponded to that shaivet’s precious stone which was affixed to the choshen, the breastplate worn by the kohen gadol. It was undoubtedly a glorious sight, twelve divisions of G-d-fearing Jews, encircling the sacred Mishkan, prepared to do Hashem’s bidding at all times.

If it was the plan of Hashem that the Bnai Yisroel camp in such a fashion, why did it take so long for Him to give them this directive? We know that the Sefer Bamidbar begins in 2449, the second year after leaving Egypt (Bamidbar 1:1). How is this so? Recall that the Torah was given in Sivan 2448. Moshe’s 120 days on Sinai ended on Tishrai 10, 2449, since it became 2449 on Tishrai 1 (Rosh Hashana), while he was still on the mountain. In other words, the last ten days Moshe was on Har Sinai were already the “second year” after leaving Egypt. They had left in 2448, and it was 2449 as of Tishrai 1. Incidentally, this is what the Torah means whenever it says the “second year” – anytime after Tishrai 1, Rosh Hashana, 2449. [Please review the d’var Torah of Parshas Tzav 5758 for the sources of these dates.] Sefer Vayikra, which comes after Shmos and before Bamidbar, takes place entirely at Sinai. Thus, our Sefer Bamidbar begins in Sinai as well, in Nissan/Iyar 2449 (Bamidbar 1:1 and Rashi 9:1) – about half way into the SECOND YEAR after leaving Mitzraim.

The Jews had left Egypt more than a whole year prior to this. Why did Hashem wait so long to tell us to camp in flag formations? This is the question of Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky in his sefer on Chumash, Emes L’yaakov. Since all of Bnai Yisroel had left Mitzraim together, why were they not commanded to create organized camps at the moment of their mass departure?

Reb Yaakov on 2:2 answers with a profound insight relating to the theme of achdus. Having flags is truly wonderful, but it could lead to some complications. Reb Yaakov describes the potential situation as “pirud halevavos” – disunity of hearts. Each flag expressed some particular ambition, a goal unique to that specific shaivet. Each banner represented the special personality of that tribe, a nature unlike any other. The colors, shades, and content varied totally. The flags could actually cause machlokes, disagreement among Jews. Conflict could result from these colorful banners! At the time of yetzias Mitzraim, this would, in fact, have been likely. However, something major developed between Nissan 2448, when we left Egypt, and Nissan/Iyar 2449. Time had passed, a full year, but another change had occurred. The Mishkan, the holy Tabernacle, had been constructed. This edifice, says Reb Yaakov, changed everything. At yetzias Mitzraim, before the Mishkan, there was no focal point, no center of attention for Bnai Yisroel to view at all times. Twelve flag camps would have spelled disaster – quarrel and conflict. But now that there was a Mishkan erect AS OF NISSAN 1, 2449 (see all dates on Tzav d’var Torah of 5758), the separate banner camps would not threaten unity. All the Jews resided AROUND THIS CENTRAL BUILDING, the Mishkan. This was a synthesis of individuality and solidarity. On one hand, each shaivet had a particular strength, a special function, a unique personality. This was depicted vividly and brilliantly by the twelve flags. On the other hand, all Jews had a unifying force which would bind them. The Mishkan stood in the center, constantly drawing their attention, reminding them of achdus, the oneness of Klal Yisroel.

Reb Yaakov provides a valuable mashal, an analogy to illustrate this point. The human body is created with numerous features and senses. Since the ears are made for hearing and the eyes for seeing, do we expect disunity to develop? Is there bickering between the eyes and the ears? Is there a fight for supremacy? Of course this is silly and illogical. They are all part of the same body! The same is true with Bnai Yisroel. Different shevatim serve different purposes. Each shaivet has its strengths, tendencies, and functions in Jewish life. This does not and SHOULD NOT lead to a lack of achdus, because we are all centered around a common focal point. The Mishkan, the sacredness of divine service, should unite us at all times, through all ordeals and experiences. Once the Mishkan was erected, it was safe for Bnai Yisroel to form flag camps and express their diversity in this atmosphere of oneness.


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