(photo credit: Joe Yudin)
Only one year passed since Am Yisrael’s Exodus from Egypt; only one year since
Ma’amad Har Sinai, the Revelation at Mount Sinai at which the nation made the
declarative statement “Na’aseh ve’nishma” (“We will do and we will hear”). Only
one year from when the entire nation stood at the foot of Mount Sinai in silence
“as one man with one heart” and received the Torah.
Now, Moshe receives
instruction from G-d to conduct a precise census of the nation and divide it
into tribes: “Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by
their families, by their fathers’ houses...” (Numbers 1, 2) And Moshe indeed
conducts the census, counts and notes the precise number of people in each
tribe, and afterwards receives additional instruction regarding the division of
the tribes to residential areas: “And the children of Israel shall pitch their
tents, every man with his own camp, and every man with his own standard...”
(Numbers 1, 52) And indeed, the united nation is divided into groups; each tribe
lived in the area meant for it and did not get involved with the other
This division does not seem natural at this time.
nation is seemingly in a stage of being built, of becoming a united, whole
nation – so why do the opposite? Why did G-d instruct to do the opposite and
divide the nation into tribes? The answer to this question is found when we read
Parshat Vayechi which seals the book of Genesis.
There we read the
description of Ya’acov parting from his 12 sons. The division of tribes was
later done based on their names and descendents – the tribe of Reuven, the tribe
of Shimon, the tribe of Yehuda, etc...
Ya’acov’s parting from his sons is
a crucial event in the life of Am Yisrael since Ya’acov then outlined for each
of his sons the special area in which he and his descendents would work, how
they would contribute to the entire nation. In this way, each tribe completes
the mosaic and serves as an irreplaceable part of the nation. For example,
Ya’acov designates the tribe of Yehuda for the monarchy. This is the tribe that
will concentrate in the area of the nation’s future capital and whose sons will
be appointed to senior positions in administering the nation. Ya’acov designated
Zvulun to work in international trade – import and export. The tribe of
Yissachar was designated to deal with Torah and teaching Jewish law to the rest
of the nation. The tribe of Dan was designated to dealing with the fields of law
and statutes; and so forth for each of the Twelve Tribes.
Ya’acov passed away, the nation leaves Egypt and receives the Torah at Mount
Now the appropriate time has come to begin building the nation
according to the plan outlined by the elderly father. For this to happen, a
certain separation among the tribes had to be preserved, to allow for each tribe
to specialize in the field designated for it. Therefore, the census was held and
the nation was divided into residential areas – not so that each tribe will
isolate itself in its field and the nation would become segmented, but so that
each tribe could be the best in its field and thus contribute its part to all
the other parts of the nation. In this way, a special tapestry would be created
that would prepare the nation in the best possible manner for a life of
independence in its land.
It seems that there could be no greater period
than this one for internalizing this important message.
The nation with
all its different segments and streams has returned to its land, with each
sector and community carrying its own Jewish and cultural heritage obtained
during the long years in exile.
Jews arrived from all corners of the
globe, and working together did the unbelievable – resurrecting the land of our
But occasionally the thought creeps in, and among some in
the nation it translates to a practical desire, to impart to all segments of the
nation a unified character expressed in a certain way of life.
desire undoubtedly stems from good intentions, but it lacks historical
understanding. It is the different hues, unique styles, and investment in
different areas, joint creativity comprised of sectors where each one works from
a different angle that create the most beautiful and perfect creation. If one
sector invests efforts in a specific area which contributes to the life of the
entire nation, and another sector takes on specific tasks that also contribute
to the rest of the nation – this would be the most correct way to build the
nation and the country, for the glory of the Torah and of Am Yisrael.
writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.