Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Bemidbar

Parashat Bemidbar

May 16, 2007

Israel’s ‘New’ Tribes
By Irwin Huberman

This week, as we begin reading Bemidbar, the fourth book of the Torah ‘ Numbers ‘ God commands Moses to conduct a count of males 20 years of age and older.

The parashah (the weekly Torah portion) goes into painstaking detail describing who the leaders of each tribe were, and ultimately how many men were counted in each.

The Torah tells us that, excluding the Levites whose role it was to tend to the Mishkan, Israel’s primary place of worship, there were 603,550 males over 20 years old. The figure inspires us to ‘do the math’ to estimate shortly after the exodus from Egypt, how many children of Israel, including women and children were part of the initial journey from Egypt to the land of Canaan.

The Torah reminds us through the account of the census the importance of our tribes and affiliations. Our tradition tells us that each one of these tribes possessed individual areas of expertise such as hunting, seafaring and warfare. Indeed, the entire nation of Israel was made stronger by the individuality of each tribe.

Over the centuries, the locations and identities of these tribes have been lost. The Jewish people scattered all over Europe and Asia, erasing the genealogical path to our ancestors. Today, with the exception of kohanim (priests) and Levites, few Jews know which tribe they come from.

But while we have lost our links to our Biblical roots, have we indeed lost our instinct to congregate in tribes? Are there still groupings within our synagogues and indeed across Judaism that quench our historical thirst to congregate?

In many synagogues, we often align ourselves according to our interests. Within many congregations there are those who primarily focus their attention on social action, or davenning (praying), choir, interacting after services, Board committees, or the raising and donating of funds.

Although all of these contributions are sacred, there exist wonderful opportunities to ‘cross over’ and sample new forms of expression within the Jewish experience.

A modern synagogue today opens as many windows into Judaism as possible, attempting to collectively maintain the balance alluded to by the sage Shimon Ha’tzadik (Simon the Righteous) in Pirqei Avot (Teachings of our Sages) when he reminds us that the world stands on three things: Torah, service to God and acts of lovingkindness. (Pirqei Avot 1:2)

There is another area within Judaism in which we are enriched by our affiliations. Today, we define our tribes as denominations. Each of these significant groups, whether they be Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, or others reflects a unique aspect of Judaism. Each brings with it a unique theology, along with a set of customs and practices.

Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky (1891-1986), a prominent Talmudic scholar within the post-World War II American Jewish community, explained with regard to the Biblical census, that without a central focal point, the tribes could have potentially broken into competing factions and fought amongst each other. But it was love of God, and common values, which kept the Children of Israel together in the desert.

It behooves us as we look across the expanse of Judaic thought to respect and appreciate all of these denominations, for each is precious in its own right.

We are blessed within Judaism with numerous ways to express ourselves, and although there exist divergent beliefs and practices, there is so much to be gained if we have the courage to cooperate, communicate and learn from each other.

We can take a lesson from this week’s Torah portion as we examine our alignments today. Although each tribe described in the Torah had unique traits, each was able to gather around the Mishkan to celebrate its connection and devotion to God.

The Torah portion teaches us that whether in the desert 3,000 years ago, or within Judaism today, diversity has the ability to enrich us. This week’s parashah points us towards a pluralistic vision of Judaism, one where each tribe is seen as part of a greater whole.

Diversity indeed is a blessing if we allow ourselves to rejoice in our common values, and the love of Torah. Indeed, as the Talmud reminds us in Eruvin 13b: Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim Hayim, ‘These and those are all words of the living God.’