"Traveling Together"

וְעָלָ֖יו מַטֵּ֣ה מְנַשֶּׁ֑ה וְנָשִׂיא֙ לִבְנֵ֣י מְנַשֶּׁ֔ה גַּמְלִיאֵ֖ל בֶּן־פְּדָהצֽוּר׃

And next to him [Ephraim] are the tribe of Manasseh – and the prince of the children of Manasseh is Gamaliel son of Pedahzur.

Numbers 2:20

Closeness isn’t always determined by geographical distance. Often, surprisingly, physical separation between people can generate a yearning that builds connectivity from afar. Joseph’s longing to be reunited with his father, Jacob, produced an attachment that was so powerful it bridged a generational gap causing his father to acknowledge Joseph’s sons as his own:1 “Now, your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, shall be mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon.”2

Even the name of the esoteric figure mentioned here, Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur, the leader of the tribe of Manasseh, is a declaration of his ancestral gratitude for personalized attention. Our sages interpret his first name, גמליאל, as “G-d did kindness for me.” They also see an allusion in his father’s name ,פדהצור meaning “G-d liberated me from imprisonment.”  
Ephraim and Manasseh were not only loved as sons by both Jacob and Joseph, but they shared a special bond between them. This connection is echoed in the unique description of the encampments. When the verse chronicles the placement of the other tribes it is expressed as “וְהַחוֹנִ֥ם עָלָ֖יו – encamped next to.” “וְהַחוֹנִ֥ם – encamped” while implied by the context, is oddly omitted by Joseph’s sons. Although the other tribes were in fact brothers, they created borders that were more suitable for neighbors, not family.3 

While “encamped” suggests something stationary, the preposition “עָלָ֖יו” includes a language of elevation. Though normally understood as “by him” it is linguistically related to “his ascent,” which hints at Ephraim and Manasseh’s availability for movement, not limited to a fixed occupation of space. Joseph, which means “to increase,” was named by his mother Rachel with the intention of expanding possibilities.4 It is this lineal aspiration for change and growth that transcends boundaries and allows for a coming together that unites over division.5  

Harmonious coexistence between people is so powerful because it reflects G-d’s oneness. The way that we treat people informs that way that G-d relates to us. If we are forgiving of those who have wronged us, then G-d, we are told, is more inclined to be forgiving. When we focus on the needs of another, G-d reciprocates and focuses on our needs.6 This is true to such an extreme extent that the Talmud,7 quoting from the prophet Hosea,8 posits that a breakdown in communal cohesion, through baseless hatred, is worse than idolatry – as it is written: “חֲב֧וּר עֲצַבִּ֛ים אֶפְרָ֖יִם הַֽנַּֽח־לֽוֹ – Ephraim is attached to idols, but let him be.” The Talmud continues and explains “בזמן שהם מתחברין ואפי’ לעצביהם הנח להם – As long as they are joined together, even [to worship] their idols, let them be.”

Sometimes this cohesion is [indeed] expressed as a physical nearness. Abaye teaches that a person should attach themselves to the congregation at all times, always praying for peace in the plural on behalf of the collective.9 The Rabbis understand that a community isn’t an association of people, the sum total of individuals coming together for a shared interest, but an entirely new entity.10

The strength of a collective is not determined by the quantity of its members, but by the quality of their bond. The Midrash11 contrasts the different nature[s] of physical and spiritual support: “It is the practice of the world that what is heavy for one person to carry, is made comfortable by another’s assistance.” The Midrash continues “If something is difficult for two people to carry, four people can manage it with ease. However, when it came to accepting the Torah at Mount Sinai, what was a difficult burden for six hundred thousand was an easy lift for one person.”

No single person has 613 commandments, because the Torah was never given to an individual, but rather to a nation. A group of people coming together for a purpose is not the same as coming together as one person, as our rabbis12 describe the Children of Israel “like one person with one heart”.

Just as a shared cup of sugar between neighbors builds a community well beyond the provision of a simple ingredient, so contributing to the wellbeing of others creates a connection extending above the physical resources of those in need of them. “So great is providing for others (לגימה) that it is – מקרבת את הרחוקים – bringing close those who are distant.”13 

Parshas Bamidbar is always read just before the festival of Shavuot, where we reencounter the Divine in acceptance of the Torah. It is intended to remind us that through our care for each other, we advance our closeness to the Divine.


1. Toras Moshe Nasson page 37.

2.  Genesis 48:5.

3.  See Moshav Zekenim.

4.  Genesis 30:25.

5.  See Avrah D’Dasha.

6.  Arvei Nachal Mekietz.

7.  Tractate Kallah Rabbasi 8:8.

8.  4:17.

9.  Berachos 30a.

10.  See Drashos HaRan.

11.  Vayikra Rabbah.

12.  Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 19:2.

13.  Sanhedrin 103b.