In this week's Parashah, Parashat BeMidbar, the Torah describes the setup of the Jews’ camp surrounding the Mishkan. A Midrash explains that when Hashem instructs Moshe to make the flags for each tribe, Moshe is worried that Bnei Yisrael would complain and argue about their positions. Hashem reassures Moshe by telling him that this orientation is the same as the positions in which Yaakov instructed his sons to carry his coffin from Egypt to Israel. This Midrash is definitely interesting, but why is it needed? What is its message?
Rav Mordechai Rogov, zt"l, a Rosh Yeshiva in Skokie, interprets this Midrash in a fascinating way. He explains that the Midrash is teaching us about human nature: human beings act courteously and respectfully when things are going well and all is secure. However, when things start to become difficult, people will act very differently. It is hard for a person to act civilly in a difficult situation. People tend to take their worries out on other people. They may even become upset or physical with other people, because of their situation.
This can illuminate the reason behind Moshe’s concern: Bnei Yisrael were wandering around an animal- and enemy-infested desert. It is true that Hashem protected Bnei Yisrael from these dangers, but they still didn’t feel totally safe. Moshe is worried that with the hard times, Bnei Yisrael's would be less civil than usual. Although Bnei Yisrael would be erring by doing so, Moshe understands that this is human nature, so he was justified in being concerned that the hard times would make them argue with each other.
Hashem responded to Moshe that as Jews, they have a heritage from their Patriarch, Yaakov, that they can act civilly even under duress or tough times. After the passing of their father, the sons of Yaakov set aside their personal issues and carried the coffin without arguing about over which of them was in which position. Even during those hard times, they acted with respect. Hashem knows that Bnei Yisrael, the descendents of Yaakov and his sons, can take this message to heart, and live around the Mishkan in the special setup without complaining or arguing with one another.
This message is still relevant today: When business is not going well, or a close friend is Rachamana Leitzlan diagnosed with cancer, it may not be easy to act properly, but it is as important as ever to act with civility.