The Israelites are to set up their tents by divisions, each of them in their own camp under their standard. — Numbers 1:52
The Torah portion for this week is Bamidbar, which means “in the desert,” from Numbers 1:1–4:20, and the Haftorah is from Hosea 2:1–22.
Albert Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” This comes from a genius – a genius who didn’t talk until he was four or read until he was seven. Einstein’s teachers labeled him “slow” and “mentally handicapped.” He may have been last in his class to do what the rest could, but certainly, Einstein wasn’t any less than his peers. He just had his own way of thinking — a way of thinking that would earn him the Nobel Prize and change the way we understand our world.
In the beginning of Numbers, God explained to Moses the way that the Israelites should dwell in their camp. Jewish tradition teaches that after a long description of which tribes would reside where, who would travel first, and who would travel last, Moses was worried. He told God that if he prescribed these positions to the 12 tribes, they would start fighting with each other. Each tribe would be jealous of the other’s position. They would complain that one tribe got to travel first, while the other had to be last; one had to be in the east, while another was in the west, and so on.
God told Moses not to worry. Years earlier, at Jacob’s funeral, the 12 tribes carried Jacob’s coffin. The way that the sons were placed around the coffin would be the way that they would be arranged in the camp. God told Moses, “Don’t worry – because when someone knows their place, there is peace.”
God’s explanation put Moses at ease, but what does it mean? What does it mean to know one’s place and why should that bring peace?
To know one’s place means to know where we belong and to know that where we belong is the best place for us. People become jealous of others when they think that someone else’s place is appropriate for them. But where would Einstein be if he thought that he should be the first to read instead of last? Where would he be if he spent his life punishing himself for being different from everyone else? If Einstein tried to be someone else, he would have missed being himself!
Take some time and try to figure out your place in this world. How can you best serve God? When you know your place, you will feel joy and peace – and the last thing you will want is to stand in anyone else’s place or to be anyone else. It’s not about being in first place or last place — it’s about being in the right place.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President