Any student of design should be intrigued by the intricate layouts of structures and camps within our sacred texts. Our ancestors had a clear understanding of how important layout and design was to the work and worship they did. This is abundantly clear in the portion of Bamidbar.
Amidst all the counting for the census, tucked at the start of Chapter 2, God speaks to Moses and Aaron and informs them of the location of the camp of each tribe around the Tent of Meeting. On the East side, and also indicated as the front, are Issachar, Judah, and Zebulun. On the South side are Gad, Reuben, and Simeon. To the West camp Manasseh, Ephraim, and Benjamin. To the North are Asher, Dan, and Naphtali. The Levites are also to all sides, but placed between the Tent of Meeting and the division of the tribes. Instructions also specify that they are to camp around the Tent of Meeting at a “distance”.
Just imagine this picture – a glorious Tent of Meeting in the center, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of tents, all in their tribal sections. Banners flying above their areas, proudly displaying their symbols and colors. The arrangement, detailed by God, making a beautiful image as viewed from above.
The rabbis, in commentary on this portion (from Midrash Rabbah) detail why each location was chosen for each tribe. In consideration of the natural forces of each direction – East, West, North and South, the rabbis indicate that God chose the appropriate direction for each tribe based on their characteristics and behaviors. For example: “The West, where are the storehouses of snow and of hail, of cold and of heat – on that side shall be Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh. For who can withstand the snow and the hail? Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin, as it is said, ‘Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh, stir up Thy might, and come to save us (Psalm 80:3).’” (*God’s might is midrashically explained as referring to the snow and hail. The merit of these three tribes would act as a protection against the harmful influence of these agencies. – Maharzu, commentary by Ze’eb Wolf Einhorn).
As an educator, I see another image while reading this text. I see a “Table” of Learning in the center and 12 children seated around the room. Aware of their particular learning styles and educational/emotional needs, they have been placed around this table with intent. Each “area” of the educational space comes with its own benefits and challenges, thus each child is set at a place in which their characteristics and behaviors best fit the setting. Judah may be seated closer to the smartboard for a clearer image. Naphtali may benefit from being at a standing desk with his back toward the window. Each student, placed according to their characteristics, behaviors, and needs, creates the center of learning.
Our Torah teaches us here, in Bamidbar, and in so many other sections, the importance of intentional design as we create our holy spaces, our meeting spaces, and our learning spaces. Rather than creating a space based on “general use”, we need to create and arrange spaces based on the needs of those who fill the spaces. This is our command, given by God, for our building of holy communities today. When we take the time to learn about who will be filling our spaces, we can create an intentional design worthy of the blessings that God gave to tribes of Israel.
Rabbi Roxanne J.S. Shapiro, RJE serves as Rabbi and Director of Life Long Learning at United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis. She serves in leadership roles in the St. Louis Rabbinical Association and the St. Louis Jewish Education Directors’ Council. She is proudly co-chairing ARJE’s 2017 Annual Gathering focusing on “The Intentional Leader”. She engaged in study of Interior Design, focusing on Educational Design and Liturgical Design, as a side-interest, but with a deep connection to her work as a rabbi and as an educator.