The tribe of Yehudah, surrounded by Zevulun and Yissachar, led the march. Not only was the tribe of Judah the most numerous, a most desirable trait for those leading the charge, their leader Nachshon ben Aminadav had been the first to jump into the sea (Sotah 37a), enabling the Jewish people to finally escape their Egyptian oppressors. It was this trait of leadership that was the hallmark of Judah. And it was Nachshon’s grandson Boaz who married Rut, laying the groundwork for the Davidic monarchy.
At the rear of the camp was the flag of the tribe of Dan who, at 62,700 available soldiers, was the second largest of the tribes. The strongest marched at the front, and the second strongest guarded the rear.
It would appear that Dan took up the rear not only because of its numbers. The Torah notes that Dan was the m’aseif, the gatherer of all the camps. The Netziv explains that they took up the rear so that all who could not keep up with their own could march with the camp of Dan, who would march slowly, enabling the weak from all the tribes to have a place with them.
“The son of an Israelite woman went out, and he was the son of an Egyptian man…and [he] blasphemed the name of the Lord and cursed, and they brought him to Moshe, and the name of his mother was Shlomeet the daughter of Divri, from the tribe of Dan” (Vayikra 24:11-12). This product of an intermarriage may have been Jewish—his mother was from the tribe of Dan—but the camp of the Jewish people in the desert was set “to the families according to the father’s house” (Bamidbar 1:2). Since this man did not have a Jewish father, the tribe of Dan rejected him and threw him out of their “camp”. Angry, he went out and cursed G-d (see Rashi, Vayikra 24:10).
The desire of the tribe of Dan to keep their camp pure led to blasphemy. This son, who is never actually named by the Torah, no doubt felt it was unfair that he should be punished for the sin of his parents.
Apparently, after seeing the result of such rejection the tribe of Dan realized that if the Jewish people were going to successfully conquer and settle the land, there needed to be a place for all; and thus, they became the gatherer of all the camps, welcoming even those from camps not their own. The camp of Israel must be large enough to gather in even—or should we say, especially— those who may not fit elsewhere, whom others reject.
We see a similar approach when the daughters of Zelofchad, whose father “died of his own sin” (Bamidbar 26:3), approached Moshe asking for the right to an inheritance in the land—something understood (until that point) to go only to male heirs. Moshe was at a loss as to what to do, but G-d’s verdict was clear: “The daughters of Zelofchad speak properly” (Bamidbar 27:7).
At the height of Egyptian slavery and persecution, a baby boy was born. His parents hid him as long as they could; when they could do so no longer, they put him baSuf, a word closely related to leheaseif, “to gather”, hoping he would somehow be saved. It is Miriam who helped to save the future Moshe Rabbeinu, ensuring that the redemption of the Jewish people would not be stillborn. Some eighty years later, when Miriam spoke ill against her brother, she was removed from the camp but only temporarily. In fact, “The people did not journey until Miriam was gathered in, ad heasef, Miriam” (Bamidbar 12:15).
The Jewish people have journeyed for many, many years. Finally, after two thousand years, we have reached our destination. But we have yet to completely fulfill our destiny. In order to do so, all Jews—from all the many camps we have—will have to march together.
The letters daled and nun, Dan, can also be read as Din, judgment. Jewish history waits to render its verdict. We can, as we have in the past, face the harsh result of Din, of judgment; or we can follow in the camp of Dan and gather in all those who want to find a place within the Jewish people, even—nay, especially—if their vision of the Jewish camp is different from our own.