Bamidbar: Get Together

This week’s Parsha (Torah Portion) is Parshat Bamidbar. The Parsha focuses on the census. It also teaches us how B’nai Yisrael (Israelites) made camp each time they stopped as they traveled in the desert from Egypt to Israel. Click here to look at the diagram of the camp.

Whenever B’nai Yisrael made camp, this is how they did it. No exceptions. Why? Why was it so important? Why did the tribes of Naphtali, Dan and Asher have to be together? Why did the tribes of Shimon, Reuvain and Gad have to be together? Why did the tribes Yisachar, Yehuda and Zevulun have to be together? Finally, why did the tribes of Binyamin, Ephraim and Menashe have to be together? What was the logic of each set of three tribes being together? What would have been the problem if the tribes were set up in other types of combinations?

In order to answer these questions, we need learn about the origin of the tribes and what each set of tribes had in common. The twelve tribes come from ten of the sons of Yaakov (Jacob, the third Patriarch of the Jewish people) and two of his grandsons. All of the tribes in essence have a common Patriarch. However, they had four possible mothers or two possible grandmothers. Yaakov had two wives Rachel and Leah. Rachel had a Shifcha (maidservant) named Bilhah and Leah had a Shifcha named Zilpah. Yaakov had children with each of these four women. Click here to look at a diagram of the camp identifying the mother or grandmother each tribe comes from. You will notice that the tribes are almost all set up by their common mother.

What does this teach us? That what we refer to as Bnai Yisrael is not exactly a nation. It is more of a loose confederation of tribes. In fact, the Talmud Bava Batra 121a points out that intertribal marriage was not allowed (this was eventually changed on Tu B’Av/The 15 of Av and is one of the reasons why Tu B’Av is a joyous holiday). Perhaps it was similar to the way various Jews today from different parts of the Jewish community are not able to marry each other. Sometimes this is due to Halachic (Jewish legal) reasons, sometimes it is more cultural, political, or ethnic issues that prevent different types of Jews from marrying or interacting together in general today. Now, it is important to note that this prohibition of intertribal marriage was mainly done to protect inheritance rights. Nonetheless it shows some level of disunity.

In Sefer Shoftim (The Book of Judges), Devorah (Deborah) the Judge (judges in addition to making legal rulings were prophets, religious and political leaders) with Barak, the general of her army, wins a war against the Canaanites. Shoftim 4:6 points out that only the tribes of Naphtali and Zevulun participated in the war. Shoftim, 5:2-31 add that the tribes of Ephraim, Binyamin, and Yissachar fought as well. Devorah seems critical for their lack of participation. In general, Sefer Shoftim tells the story of leaders of tribes, not of the entire nation.

Studying these texts is important because they show us that fragmentation has always been common to the Jewish people. There is a tendency when we lament over our disunity to become nostalgic for some mythical time in Jewish history where we were truly one people. The fact is there has always been some level of separatism. Now merely because this is always the way it has been, it does not mean that this is the way it always has to be. We should strive to make our people more unified. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with disagreement. I am not in anyway suggesting uniformity in Judaism. We are richer because of our diversity. However, we must understand that disagreement does not mean “I hate you”. A person can maintain their point of view passionately and intensely without in anyone degrading or devaluing someone they disagree with. We are about to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah. Rashi comments on Shemot/Exodus 19:2 that the people received the Torah “like one person with one heart”. We should always be “like one person with one heart”.

C’mon people now,
Smile on your brother
Ev’rybody get together
Try and love one another right now

(From the song “Get Together” by Chet Powers (aka Dino Valenti)

 

This week’s title comes from the song “Get Together “. The song is also known as ” Let’s Get Together”. The song is by Chet Powers (aka Dino Valenti). It was written in the early 1960’s. A number of different artist over the years have covered this song. The most famous is probably the 1967 version by the Youngbloods.