Studying Parshat Bamidbar I have to quell a certain instinct to pass over the first few chapters. At first glance, it’s hard to imagine much meaning in the specifics of the tribe-by-tribe censes and the organization of the encampments around the tabernacle. On second glance, my nationalist sensibilities are even slightly offended. Aren’t all the tribes descended from Jacob? Why does God emphasize tribal divides during the Israelites desert wanderings? Indeed, this could be the ideal time to erase divisions and encourage everyone to merge together as one. We know that upon the Israelites conquest of Israel, tribal rifts will become highly problematic and even lead to a full-scale civil war and split between two kingdoms.
To answer my questions I returned to Beraishit, where we first encounter Jacob’s sons, the forbearers of the tribes. Throughout the last four parshiot: Vayetzeh, Vayishlach, Miketz, Vayigash, and Vayechi we watch the 12 brothers develop as individuals, sometimes bonding together but other times coming to near deathly blows. Yet it is these experiences, the conflicts and the resolutions, that define the brothers and prove to be essential experiences of personal growth. Thus, in the end of Beraishit, Jacob chooses to give each of his sons a blessing that emphasize their individual traits, rather than blessing them all together.
A passage of Talmud in the tractate of Pesachim learns from Jacob’s blessings to relate a profound insight on the significance of particularity within the Jewish people.
If a man comes and said ‘let us arbitrate law,’ we know he hails from Dan for it says “Dan shall govern his people as one of the tribes of Israel” (Beraishit 49.16). And, If a man comes and says I will build myself a house on the seashore . . . he hails from Zebulan for it says “Zebulan shall dwell by the sea shore” (Beraishit 49.13) (Paraphrased. Pesachim Daf Daled Amud Aleph)
Following in Jacob’s lead, the Rabbis underscore that the distinct attributes of the 12 sons are not fleeting, but rather have a marked presence for generations onward. Here the Rabbis teach us an important principle about Jewish nationhood: a wide array of individuals, with their own talents and perspectives, make up the Jewish nation. God does not prefer a monolithic people. Returning to our Parsha, we now see how the early chapters of Bamidbar reinforce this message. The separate censes and particular regions of encampment are meant to recognize and appreciate the individuality of each tribe.
However in the modern day, this message of pluralism under an overarching banner of unity can be all too easy to forget. With the disintegration of the 10 tribes and the destruction of the temple much of the distinction has been erased for practical reasons and the tribal divisions, a previously essential component of Jewish nationhood, hold much less significance. Nevertheless, in our ingathering to the State of Israel we have an opportunity to return in spirit to this message. The recent protests in Israel by the Ethiopian community demonstrate the critical nature of this endeavor. As Jews from all corners of the world join together in the newly reborn state of Israel it is time that we highlight the inherent values of our various perspectives, customs, and communal histories. We must embrace our rich pasts as Jews from Russia, Iraq, Africa, Western Europe, and Yemen before uniting in our shared goal and vision for a common future
Just as the tribes of Bamidbar formed their own distinct camps around the common tabernacle, the Jews of modern day must join around a common dream of building the State of Israel.
Student Studying in Migdal Oz