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Bemidbar

"The children of Israel shall pitch according to their fathers' houses; every man with his own standard, according to their insignia" Numbers 2:2

    People describe London, and other big cities in the UK, as a multicultural melting pot, with people from different countries or of different cultures and religions living along side one another. In fact, this is not strictly true. We tend to live in pockets as communities huddled together and often the local high street acts as its standard - from the curry houses of Brick Lane to the kosher butchers of Hendon, from the sari shops of Southall to the boutiques of Knightsbridge.

    In this week's sidrah, we are taught about how the children of Israel set up camp in a proscribed formation. The tribe of Levi was central, safeguarding the tabernacle; the twelve tribes each had their designated spot under their standard at a distance from the centre. This idea, that the tribes were encamped under their own insignia, suggested that each tribe had its own distinct identity and that this was something to be celebrated, not to shy away from. The tribes did not need to be mixed up to ensure that the children of Israel were one, rather each had their own role in the creation of the whole.

    So why was the tribe of Levi at the centre of the camp? The formation only works when a shared value system is at the heart of society. As long as all the tribes had the same focal point, difference could be celebrated and not feared. We do not have to be the same, we can enjoy our distinctiveness and respect our neighbour's standards if we are encouraged to establish a shared focal point, a shared direction, a shared value system. Only then can we truly call ourselves a multicultural society.

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