"An inheritance shall not be redirected from tribe to tribe" Numbers 36:9

By Rabbi Daniel Rowe, July 24, 2014

History is replete with political super-entities crumbling back to constituent parts under the pressure of tribalism. Today it is the Middle East, yesterday the Balkans.

The project of Bemidbar, the forging of a nation from disparate tribes, appears to have fallen short at the finishing line. A last-minute insistence on the non-transferability of tribal lands, and the push for tribal in-marriage, appear to be forces of disintegration. Yet we find no hint that the Torah itself considers this a failure.

Indeed, it seems to have been somewhat deliberately engineered by Moses, under God's direction. In last week's sidrah, Mattot ("Tribes"), Moses avoids channelling God's word through the regular structures, preferring instead the "heads of the tribes" (30:2). He then re-organises the military structure for the battle against Midian, along new lines: "One thousand from each tribe" (31:4). Why might this be suddenly desirable? The key lies in the subtle shift of terminology. Throughout the Torah, the word for tribe is shevet; at the end of Bemidbar it is mateh. Each means a "branch". Chasidic sources point out that shevet is still attached to the tree; mateh is detached.

The mateh no longer needs the tree. It can live independently and become its own tree. But it can do something else. It can see itself as a new source of vitality for the whole; a new source of support.

If disparate tribes are united by their dependence, then maturity brings disintegration. But if they are united by a common dream, then the more independent they become, the more responsibility they take for the greater good. If the common bond of Israel is the dream we share together, then the deeper the differentiation, the greater the re-integration.

Last updated: 2:00pm, July 24 2014