Parshat Bamidbar: Division of the tribes

There could be no greater period than this one for internalizing the message of the division of the nation among the 12 tribes.

Desert (photo credit: Joe Yudin)
(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 tribes.
This division does not seem natural at this time.
The 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.
Centuries after Ya’acov passed away, the nation leaves Egypt and receives the Torah at Mount Sinai.
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 forefathers.
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.
This 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.The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.