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Parashat Bemidbar

May 24, 2017

Parashat Bemidbar: Tribalism or Multitribalism?

Rabbi Jill Hammer

The first parashah in the Book of Numbers (or in Hebrew Bemidbar) makes a significant point of listing the census numbers of each tribe (adult males able to go to war) as well as the leaders of each tribe (hence the moniker Book of Numbers). The parashah goes on to list where each tribe camps in relationship to the Tabernacle: Judah, Issachar and Zebulun on the east, Reuben, Simeon, and Gad on the south, Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin on the west, and Dan, Asher, and Naftali on the north, with Levi camped in the center. Then the parashah details the particular duties of each subclan of the tribe of Levi as well as their census numbers. It’s as if we’ve discovered an Iron Age accounting tablet.  Aside from the tale of the elevation of the Levites, there isn’t a story or a law to be found for four chapters. In short, the beginning of the book of Numbers is about tribalism: “the state or fact of being organized in a tribe or tribes.” While the prequels to Numbers (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus) give the story, laws, and practices, of the people Israel, Parashat Bemidbar gives the statistics.

There’s another definition of tribalism, though, and it is one currently under discussion in the Jewish community: “behavior and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s tribe or social group.” In my experience, “tribalism,” in a contemporary Jewish context, usually means something like “attachment to the Jewish people for no other reason than a sense of cultural loyalty or cultural defensiveness.” Tribalism is often contrasted with belonging that relates to meaning or religious purpose—and, it’s contrasted to a Judaism that is concerned about the larger world. Tribalism, as I have heard the word used, is Judaism without much content or practice, a Judaism primarily concerned with its own survival.

I think this use of “tribalism,” as useful as it may be to describe certain contemporary attitudes, might be lashon hara toward the tribal societies around the world. And, I think it isn’t in line with the complex “tribalism” we see in Parashat Bemidbar and throughout the Bible.  I say this because in Torah and in later midrashim, the “twelve tribes” are not at all a symbol of unthinking unity. In the books of Samuel and Kings, the tribes have different perspectives (they frequently disagree on who should be king and even on which pilgrimage city to use). In the book of Numbers, tribes sometimes deviate from the whole (think of the request of the tribes of Reuben and Gad to not cross the Jordan). In Parashat Bemidbar, each tribe has its own role and its own place to camp. This is partly about an orderly campsite, but it also suggests a diversity of purpose—a working together rather than working in lockstep.

And, there are some checks and balances among the tribes. Judah and Levi hold different kinds of power within the tribal structure, the judges come from a variety of tribes, and all of the tribes seem to have their own gifts and challenges. I like this vision of the community. It suggests multiplicity as well as unity: acknowledgement rather than erasure.

There are a few midrashim that support this view of biblical tribalism. One of them involves the well that accompanies the Israelites through the desert in Miriam’s merit. In this midrash, wherever the well comes to rest, it splits into twelve streams.  These streams demarcate and separate the spaces for the tribes.  (Tosefta Sukkah, 3:11-13).  The legend even imagines the tribes having to visit one another by boat!  In fact, the mural at the Dura Europos synagogue from the 3rd century CE depicts this midrash in visual form, as a well splitting into twelve streams. This strikes me as such a powerful image of diversity. The image of the boats is particularly strong: it suggests the idea that we have boundaries and are entitled to them, and that we may need to cross our own boundaries sometimes to visit one another.

In other midrashim, the Sea of Reeds provides not one passage for the fleeing Hebrews, but twelve: one for each tribe (Midrash Vayosha 12; Midrash Temurah 13). I find it a gorgeous visual image to think of this network of channels through the sea. While it seems like it might have been hard, in the chaos, to find one’s correct passageway, what I like about this is the notion that everyone has their own passage through the sea. Even in that moment of national redemption, there isn’t uniformity—there is difference.  Not only that, but no one person can say: I was first through the sea.

Our community today is composed of many different tribes: different races, genders, sexual orientations, levels of ability, ages, Jewish practices and beliefs. Our camp around the sanctuary may be a bit more broad than the one depicted in Parashat Bemidbar, but ultimately, it is a similar gathering of people with diverse perspectives, gifts, and practices.  When I think of the tribalism that we encounter in Parashat Bemidbar, I think not of an ethnocentric clinging to unity, but of the teaching that many tribes can be one people. According to our tradition, that’s part of the tribal experience. I invite us not to go along with the notion that finding a place in the tribe means a flat kind of unity. I invite us each to imagine that there are many streams toward liberation.


Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at AJR.  She is the author of several books, including The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons.