TORAH MINUTE - BAMIDBAR MAY, 1993
It seems that no matter how I try to put the Desert Storm experience into proper perspective, being only one year in a lifetime of 41 years, it never seems to sink far below the surface of my consciousness and has somehow come to define me. It was inevitable then, when assigning the portion of BAMIDBAR (Tr. In the Desert), I would get the call.
BAMIDBAR has two English translations, the literal being "In the Desert" and the more common, derived from the Septuagint, being "Numbers". "In the Desert", is perhaps best suited to describe the entire book of BAMIDBAR as it chronicles the latter years of the Children of Israel's journey through the Sinai. The book is rife with stories of revelation and revolution and ends on the very doorstep of the Promised Land.
The traditional title of "Numbers" however, is a better description of the portion of BAMIDBAR itself. Hashem commands Moses to count the members of each tribe who are eligible for military service - the original Selective Service System. Moses has a pool of 603,550 men classified as "1A" who will be called upon to wage future campaigns. How does this compare with modern military forces? The modern, regular, U. S. Army is currently composed of some 14 active combat divisions, each consisting of about 15,000 soldiers. Three divisions form a Corps, and two corps form an Army. To compare sizes of the ancient and modern armies, it is instructive to look at the encampment and marching order Hashem commands the Children of Israel in BAMIDBAR.
Israel would camp and march in a formation similar to a plus sign (+). At the center of the formation was the square Tabernacle with the Holy Ark. Immediately around the Tabernacle were the KOHANIM (Priests) and Levites. The remaining tribes formed four rectangular formations, with three tribes each, to the east, south, west and north. Animal flocks were placed in the voids at the northeast northwest, southeast and southwest corners of the encampment. Moses' count of the potential military members of each tribe averaged 50,000, making each tribe about the size of a modern Corps. Thus we can see that the ancient Army of Israel was approximately three times the size of the present U. S. Army active duty combat forces.
To put this in another perspective, during the famous "D-Day" invasion of Europe commencing 6 June, 1944, the First U. S. Army, consisting of 2 corps totaling 9 divisions was put ashore on the coast of Normandy. This force was approximately equal to just one of the three-tribe formations surrounding the Tabernacle. In response to the 2 August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the Third U. S. Army was dispatched to Saudi Arabia with a combat force of two corps composed of three divisions and one brigade each. It is clear from this illustration that, according to the Torah, Moses could have mounted both the D-Day and the Desert Storm operations and still would have held more than 50 percent of his army in reserve.
In BAMIDBAR, HASHEM commands that each of the tribes of Israel will march under prescribed banners. From Oral Tradition, we learn their colors:
Reuven - Red
Shimon – Green
Levi - Red, White and Black
Yehuda – Blue
Issascha - Dark Blue
Zevulun - White
Dan - Opal
Naphtali - Dark Red
Gad - White and Black
Asher - Green
Ephraim/Manasha - Black
The colors of the banners of the twelve tribes therefore consisted of white, black and various shades of red, blue and green.
Moments ago I described the combat force dispatched by the U. S. Army to the Persian Gulf. In addition to members of all the service branches, a cadre of some 4200 civilians, myself included, were sent to the Gulf to perform various support tasks. The military began decorating civilians serving in war zones during the Vietnam War and continued the tradition by awarding Gulf civilians the Civilian Southwest Asia Service Medal. The ribbon attached to this medal, which is similar to the military Desert Storm decoration, consists of bands of white, black, red, blue and green (tan) - the same colors as the banners of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Clearly, the U. S. Army Institute of Heraldry which designed the medal did not have the portion of BAMIDBAR in mind when they chose the colors of the ribbon, however there is still a powerful lesson in this coincidence. Whenever American soldiers have been called to battle, the American Jew has had ample representation within their ranks. In World War II alone, the battlefields of Europe and Asia were stained with the blood of over 11,000 American Jews who were killed in action. There is scarcely an American military cemetery that does not have at least one MAGEN DAVID interspersed amongst the rows of crosses.
Because of certain anti-Semitic undercurrents of the Gulf War, I've become deeply interested in the contributions of American Jews in the Military. I've recently become a supporter of the one of the best repositories of such information, the National Museum of American Jewish Military History, an arm of the Jewish War Veterans of the USA. The museum is located in Washington, DC at 1811 R St. NW, and is one of five museums in DC which are dedicated to Jewish interests. I know that many people are planning trips to Washington to see the new Holocaust Museum. sincerely hope that some of you might consider a side trip to the NMAJH, a tribute and memorial to the American Jewish soldier. I would like to close with the thought that service in the armies of our host nations was the crucible from which was molded the current Israeli Army. This but one way that we can insure our survival as a people until the arrival of the Messianic Era.