The tribe and the individual

The Torah’s focus on the tribes is an important reminder of our corporate essence.

The tribe and the individual (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
The tribe and the individual
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
ANYONE WHO has to teach the weekly Torah portion is all too aware that some parts of the Torah are more engaging than others. And it is for that reason that most rabbis and teachers are probably relieved to be finished with the rather technical Book of Leviticus.
But this relief may be premature, since the Book of Numbers that we are now starting also begins without anything likely to excite the average reader. For most, it is only in a couple of weeks that we start hitting some fascinating and attention-grabbing stories.
Yet a careful read of the book shows that its early section marks a critical new paradigm shift, which serves as a key to the rest of the Bible and even beyond. As such, it really deserves our attention and interest.
A good place to begin our consideration of this shift is from its name.
In general, the rabbinic names of the Torah’s books serve as the basis for their names in other languages as well. Accordingly, the English Book of Numbers is derived from the rabbinic name for Bemidbar, Sefer Hapikudim. It would be more correct to translate it as The Book of “Countings,” since the name “Numbers” emphasizes the wrong meaning of the Biblical countings that occur repeatedly throughout this book. The main point of the censuses is not really to tally up the population of the tribes as much as to better identify their characteristics.
In fact, the Torah’s interest here in “numbers” constitutes only one component of a larger concern about tribal attributes.
Not only do all of this book’s countings center on tribal censuses (as opposed to those that stress the nation or the clan), but even the repeated lists of leaders are all about the tribes. To top it off, the Book of Numbers tells us each tribe’s marching position, as well as its position in the camp when at rest. In such a context, it becomes easier to understand that each tribal sacrifice needs to be registered separately, even if it is exactly the same as all of the others, which is what we see in Chapter 7, probably the most repetitive chapter in the entire Bible.
Numbers’ shift to the tribes is further highlighted by the fact that the tribes, descended from and named for Jacob’s sons, only really make their appearance in this book. Hitherto, the Torah narrates the story of the 12 tribes for almost two entire books without differentiating them: they are all the “children of Israel.” Yet once it starts mentioning them in Numbers, it does so repeatedly and from many angles.
There are many reasons for the Torah’s sudden interest in the tribes. For one, with the impending settlement of the land, tribal identity would take on a more powerful role. From that perspective, the book of Numbers not only guides the future, it also helps explain it.
But there is something even more fundamental here than a better understanding of the Bible. Ultimately, the tribal motif in the book of Numbers does nothing less than push us toward a more complete understanding of human identity.
While humans are counted as individuals, we are also (and perhaps even more so) counted as part of something larger.
Accordingly, we need to be aware that our own identities are largely determined by the group to which we belong, in this case, the tribes. The Torah sends us this message by its unmistakable interest in the tribal groupings that begin to take shape when the Jewish people is about to become a nation. This message is there so that, in the words of the contemporary Scottish philosopher Alasdair Mac- Intyre, we realize that what we are “able to do and say intelligibly as an actor is deeply affected by the fact that we are never more (and sometimes less) than the co-authors of our own narratives.”
Of course, this isn’t meant to obliterate individual identity either.
Lest we forget the place of the individual in the tribal scheme, the Torah also proclaims that territory will be divided according to the number of individual families in each tribe. Moreover, we should not forget that the emphasis placed on tribal identity is also a way to inform our personal identities and better understand ourselves as individuals as well.
On some level, the Book of Numbers’ interest in personal identity is particularly important today. Collective identity was taken for granted for much of history. During that time, the Torah was simply reinforcing a commonly accepted idea. Yet for us moderns who have lost much of our sense of identification with any collective, the Torah’s focus on the tribes is an important reminder of our corporate essence.
Whatever our makeup and wherever it comes from, according to the Torah, who we are is not just a personal issue. 
Rabbi Francis Nataf is a Jerusalem-based educator, writer and thinker. The essay above is based on a section from his recently published book, ‘Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Numbers’