The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - RABBI DANIEL ROWE

“An in­her­i­tance shall not be redi­rected from tribe to tribe”

HIS­TORY is re­plete with po­lit­i­cal su­per-en­ti­ties crum­bling back to con­stituent parts un­der the pres­sure of trib­al­ism. To­day it is the Mid­dle East, yes­ter­day the Balkans.

The project of Bemid­bar, the forg­ing of a na­tion from dis­parate tribes, ap­pears to have fallen short at the fin­ish­ing line. A last-minute in­sis­tence on the non­trans­fer­abil­ity of tribal lands, and the push for tribal in-mar­riage, ap­pear to be forces of dis­in­te­gra­tion. Yet we find no hint that the To­rah it­self con­sid­ers this a fail­ure.

In­deed, it seems to have been some­what de­lib­er­ately en­gi­neered by Moses, un­der God’s di­rec­tion. In last week’s sidrah, Mat­tot (“Tribes”), Moses avoids chan­nelling God’s word through the reg­u­lar struc­tures, pre­fer­ring in­stead the “heads of the tribes” (30:2). He then re-or­gan­ises the mil­i­tary struc­ture for the bat­tle against Mid­ian, along new lines: “One thou­sand from each tribe” (31:4). Why might this be sud­denly de­sir­able? The key lies in the sub­tle shift of ter­mi­nol­ogy. Through­out the To­rah, the word for tribe is shevet; at the end of Bemid­bar it is mateh. Each means a “branch”. Cha­sidic sources point out that shevet is still at­tached to the tree; mateh is de­tached.

The mateh no longer needs the tree. It can live in­de­pen­dently and be­come its own tree. But it can do some­thing else. It can see it­self as a new source of vi­tal­ity for the whole; a new source of sup­port.

If dis­parate tribes are united by their de­pen­dence, then ma­tu­rity brings dis­in­te­gra­tion. But if they are united by a com­mon dream, then the more in­de­pen­dent they be­come, the more re­spon­si­bil­ity they take for the greater good. If the com­mon bond of Is­rael is the dream we share to­gether, then the deeper the dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion, the greater the re-in­te­gra­tion.

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