Parashat Bemidbar 5779

The “New” Tribes of Israel
A D’var Torah for Parashat Bemidbar
By Rabbi Irwin Huberman (’10)

Over the centuries, there has been much debate and speculation regarding the fate of the twelve tribes of Israel.

In recent years, with the advent of such genealogy programs as and 23andMe, there has been considerable interest within the Jewish world and beyond in tracing our roots and countries of origin.

Yet, in spite of this new technology, few of us, with the exception of the Kohanim and Levi’im, know which tribe we descend from.

But, can we truly say, in 2019, that the idea of tribalism within Judaism is passé? Perhaps not.

In Biblical times, each Israelite knew where they came from. Each tribe has its own banner. Each tribe had its own personality. In the closing portion of the Book of Genesis, in his last days, Jacob gathers his twelve sons, and gives each tribe its own blessing according to that personality. (Genesis 49: 1-27)

Our Sages taught that the Sea of Reeds actually split into twelve paths, providing a unique path for each of the twelve tribes (Targum Pseudo-Yonatan, Exodus 14:21). The Torah, through the end of life blessings of both Jacob and Moses, teaches that each tribe had its own unique skill and destiny. For example, Issachar was the scholar, Gad the warrior, Naphtali the free spirit, Benjamin the ravenous consumer, Zevulun the businessperson, Dan the judge, Asher the prosperous one, and so on.

This was not a homogenous nation. Rather, it was a collection of tribes — each with its own communal personality.

Are things that different today?

In this week’s Torah portion, the first of the Book of Numbers, God commands Moses to conduct a census of men, twenty years and older, who were available to serve in the first Jewish army.

The Torah provides us with a detailed tribal breakdown — and concludes that there were 603,550 men prepared to fight. And that did not include women, children, seniors and the Levites.

Each tribe has its own role, responsibility and designated position surrounding the Mishkan, the movable sanctuary where the Torah was housed.

There may be a tendency, as we read this week’s Torah portion to ask, “What relevance does this tribal count have today?”

And I believe that the answer is, “a lot.” For, as we look at the Jewish world today, we can easily conclude that the concept of many tribes flourishing within one Jewish identity remains.

As we view Jewish synagogues and other communal organizations, we observe many collections of individuals working towards a common goal. They just go by different names than those listed in the Torah.

For example, today, within most congregations, we commonly observe a “tribe” expressing their Judaism through the primary portal of social action. We see many defining their spirituality through the arts. Many volunteer both within the Jewish world and beyond.

Some are philanthropists, others scholars. Some define their Judaism through their connection with Israel. Others pride themselves in their involvement with secular groups.

Some have made their mark in medicine, the judicial system, education and business. Others have distinguished themselves by being remarkable parents and grandparents.

Many find meaning through Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Renewal, or Reconstructionist liturgy. Some are proud agnostics or atheists. Others express their spiritually privately or through other portals.

In 2009, I had the privilege of attending a talk on this issue by the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Renewal movement, who posited that each Jewish denomination, and for that matter each religion, represents a certain limb or organ working together to form the spiritual body of humanity.

Indeed, the remarkable thing about Judaism in this new millennium is how many new tribes there truly are. Each one, like the ancient tribes of Israel, is precious, unique, and vital towards the continuity of the Jewish people and the repair of the world.

This week’s parashah inspires us to reflect upon the idea that different groups within Judaism can play a unique role as we work together towards Tikun Olam – the healing of this imperfect world.

Where would we be without any of them?

As we look at Judaism today, and its growing pluralistic vision, it is important that each branch, each tribe, each form of expression, each denomination should be cherished as part of the communal whole.

While today, we may not identify as a member of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph or Benjamin, each one of us, through our modern tribes, still contributes to our collective census – each of us, as in ancient times, positioning ourselves around the Torah.

The names may have changed, but the commitment to our collective mission endures.

Indeed, whether we realize it or not, each one of us belongs to one or more modern tribes, and each plays its role within the ongoing journey of the Jewish people.

This week’s Torah portion inspires us to consider, through the counting of each individual clan, which tribe do we belong to?

And how can we use that tribe, working in respect and harmony with others, to make this world a better place?
Rabbi Irwin Huberman (AJR 2010) is the spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Israel, a United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism affiliated congregation in Glen Cove, NY.