Through their sojourn in the Midbar, Bnei Yisrael traveled in a designated order and encamped in a designated configuration: divided into four degalim of three shevatim each. According to one view quoted by Rashi, this order was originally set by Yaakov Avinu when he gave instructions about how his aron was to be carried from Egypt to Eretz Yisrael.
Yaakov Avinu had commanded that Yehudah, Yissachar and Zevulun should be on the eastern side of the aron; Reuven, Shimon and Gad on the southern side; and so on.
Centuries later, his descendants were set up in the same configuration as they made their way to Eretz Yisrael.
The meforshim grant us additional glimpses into the reasons for the particular groupings.
For example, Ramban, quoting a Midrash, teaches that Shevet Shimon was attached to Shevet Reuven and Shevet Gad so that Reuven the baal teshuvah and Gad the baal gevurah should atone for him.
This is perplexing.
Referring to Reuven as the paradigm of a baal teshuvah is understandable. “Whoever says that Reuven sinned is mistaken” (Shabbos 55b). Of course we cannot fathom the greatness of bnei Yaakov. However, we do know that after the incident in which he attempted to defend his mother’s honor, a deed that seems unsuited to someone of his stature, Reuven spent his days in teshuvah — fasting and wearing sackcloth. So Reuven indeed embodies the concept of the baal teshuvah, one who sincerely repents and in doing so reaches the loftiest of spiritual heights.
But the reason Shevet Shimon was in need of atonement was the tragedy of Zimri, the head of Shevet Shimon who along with members of his shevet brazenly and publicly sinned.
That terrible calamity occurred at the very end of Bnei Yisrael’s stay in the Midbar, as described at the end of Parashas Balak; while the degalim were set up almost 40 years earlier!
Chazal teach that a baal teshuvah can attain levels greater than those attained by a tzaddik who never sinned. Someone who turns back from a life of decadence and truly repents, merits the most lofty levels.
The converse is also true. If a tzaddik who has reached great heights falls and commits a sin, his punishment is greater than that of ordinary men.
Chazal (Sukkah 52a) tell us that whoever is greater than his fellow, his evil inclination is proportionately greater as well.
Shimon himself was a great warrior against immorality; with his brother Levi he wiped out the entire city of Shechem, a bastion of evil and impurity. But because he was on such an exalted level, his descendants were at a greater risk of falling.
Therefore they were assigned to the degel of Reuven, paradigm baal teshuvah: to remind them that just as a baal teshuvah can be greater than one who was always a tzaddik, a tzaddik who sins is lower than an ordinary evildoer.
But how should Shevet Shimon battle the evil inclination?
The answer lay in the choice of third shevet marching under that degel — Gad.
In the beginning of this week’s parashah, the leaders of the shevatim are listed. The name of the Nasi of shevet Gad is given as Elyasaf ben De’uel.
Later on in the parashah, when the shevatim and their leaders are mentioned again (this time in reference to the degalim and their respective locations within the encampment), Gad’s leader is called Elyasaf ben Re’uel.
Ramban explains that “Deuel” and “Reuel” are essentially one name. “De’uel” signifies “sheyada Keil,” that he was filled with the knowledge of Hashem. “Re’uel” signifies that his raayonos, all his thoughts, were about Hashem.
By filling one’s mind with thoughts of divrei Torah and avodas Hashem, one can shield himself from slipping into the poisonous pit of sin. (Based on the Chasam Sofer)
Tragically, Shevet Shimon’s proximity to Shevet Reuven and Shevet Gad wouldn’t save them from sinning. But a bit later in the parashah, we twice see the critical influence of neighbors.
The proximity of the children of Kehas to Shevet Reuven lured Dassan and Aviram and 250 others of Shevet Reuven into the plot woven by Korach (of the family of Kehas). “Woe to the wicked one and woe to his neighbor,” is Rashi’s comment.
On the other hand, Yissachar and Zevulun were encamped near Moshe Rabbeinu and his sons and thus merited to become great in Torah learning. “It is good for the righteous one and good for his neighbor,” Rashi says.
Cleaving to the righteous is a fundamental part of avodas Hashem. So is ensuring that we are not inadvertently influenced negatively by those with whom we interact on a regular basis.