They traveled together, a single mass of two million people moving slowly through the sands. Each tribe precisely positioned, each group in perfect formation, their footprints marking the desert.

At the center of this great mass was the Tabernacle, the holy house of G‑d. Immediately surrounding the Tabernacle was the tribe of Levi: Moses, Aaron, and their immediate families to the east; the Gershon family to the west; the Kehat family to the south; and the Merari family to the north.

Arrayed around these four families were the remaining twelve tribes of Israel. Three tribes to the east, three to the west, three to the north and three to the south.1

Angelic Entourage

The Midrash relates that G‑d descended from the heavens at Sinai surrounded by a majestic entourage of 22,000 angels. The entourage, arrayed around the divine presence, was divided into four groups.2

The eastern group was led by the angel Gabriel. The western group was led by the angel Raphael. The northern group was led by the angel Uriel, and the southern group was led by the angel Michael.3

Arrayed around the first circle of angels was yet another circle of angels, also comprised of four groups. This outer circle numbered 600,000 angels.4

Witnessing this majestic array, our ancestors yearned for a similar formation. Being totally encircled by G‑d’s presence would ensure that their attention would be exclusively focused upon G‑d. They asked that they be positioned in similar formation when G‑d’s presence would become manifest in the Tabernacle.5

Request Granted

Thirty days after the Tabernacle was erected, G‑d commanded Moses to take a census of the Jewish people and to establish their formations in accordance with that of the angels.

To his amazement, Moses found that the census matched the number of angels in G‑d’s entourage perfectly. There were 22,000 Levites, corresponding to the number of angels in G‑d’s inner circle, and 600,000 Jews in the other tribes, corresponding to the number of angels in G‑d’s outer circle.6

When Moses was instructed to establish the tribal formations, he worried that it would lead to friction among the tribes. Which tribe would lead, and which would follow? Who would lead to the east, and who to the west? Moses didn’t relish controversy.

“Don’t worry,” G‑d told him, “the patriarch Jacob has already arranged it. Before Jacob passed away, he instructed his sons to carry his coffin in the same formation that their children would later use in the desert.

Judah would lead to the east, followed by Issachar and Zebulun. Reuben would lead to the south, followed by Simon and Gad. Ephraim would lead to the west, followed by Manasseh and Benjamin. Dan would lead to the north, followed by Asher and Naphtali.”7

Tribes and Angels: Might, Kindness, Healing, Light

The tribe of Judah led to the east, corresponding to the angelic camp led by Gabriel. Judah was a symbol of strength and firm discipline, as is Gabriel, the angel of divine strength.

The tribe of Reuben led to the south, corresponding to the angelic camp led by Michael. Reuben was a symbol of kindness; he was the first to rush to Joseph’s rescue. This corresponds to Michael, the angel of divine benevolence.

The tribe of Ephraim led to the west, corresponding to the angelic camp led by Raphael. Generations later, the tribe of Ephraim would prevent Jews from the north of Israel from visiting the Temple in Jerusalem. They never repented for this sin, and were never spiritually healed. They were therefore aligned with Raphael, the angel of divine healing.

The tribe of Dan led to the north, corresponding to the angelic camp led by Uriel. The tribe of Dan actually implemented Ephraim’s ban on the pilgrimage, and denied themselves access to spiritual light. They were therefore aligned with Uriel, the angel of divine light.8

Eleven Months

G‑d waited eleven full months before granting His children’s wish and agreeing to this celestial formation.9

The Midrash teaches that G‑d betrothed the Jews at Sinai, and married them on the day that the Tabernacle was erected.10 In ancient times it was customary to wait ten months between betrothal and marriage—and indeed, there was a ten-month interval between the day we received the Ten Commandments and the day the Tabernacle was erected.11

According to the Talmud, wedding celebrations should last for thirty days;12 and indeed, G‑d waited one additional month. He wanted to conclude the celebrations and make certain that the bond was complete. Only then, when we were fully committed, our devotion beyond question, did He grant our desire for celestial formations.13

Becoming Angelic

Our ancestors’ request reflected a desire to reach beyond their grasp. To perceive G‑d’s greatness the way the angels do, and to be affected by G‑d’s presence the way angels are. They knew that this was beyond them, but this did not prevent them from yearning for it.

G‑d waited till they reached the pinnacle of their own potential, and then granted their request. In doing so G‑d made it possible for us, even here today, to reach beyond ourselves and periodically gain a measure of angelic inspiration.14