Shabbat Shalom: Parshiot Matot Masei (Numbers 30:2-36:13)
Efrat, Israel - Our Bible develops from the story of a family in the Book of Genesis - Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob his four wives and thirteen children, replete with jealousies, intrigues and sibling rivalries - to the emergence of a nation in the Book of Exodus. And the bridge between family and nation seems to be the twelve tribal divisions enunciated by Jacob, especially in his final blessings before his death.
However, the tribes do not disappear with the development of the nation. In the incidence of the twelve scouts, princes of each tribe are specifically chosen, and this week’s Torah portion begins with Moses’ presenting the commandments regarding the laws of promises and oaths to the “heads of the tribes” (Numbers 30:2). Indeed, the very division of the land of Israel is established along tribal lines, the Biblical book of Judges is filled with tribal rivalries and murderous tribal conflicts, and even after King David unites the nation under one monarch with a single capital City of Jerusalem, the enmity of Judah and Ephraim persists until the destruction of the Holy Temple. Maimonides goes so far as to legislate separate Courts of Law for each individual tribe. Even to this very day, kohen-priest descendants of Aaron from the tribe of Levi rise to bless the congregation (daily in Israel, on the festivals in the diaspora), and all the descendants of the tribe of Levi are called to the Torah immediately following the first-to-be called kohen. Why retain a tribal system which seems to have only contributed to the internecine strife which prevented the united period of Kings David and Solomon from becoming the norm of Israel’s government?!
I believe that a careful reading of this week’s Torah portion - and especially paying attention to two different Hebrew words for the noun translated as tribe - will provide the answer to our question; it will also present us with the proper fashion in which to forge a nation dedicated to the ideal of “perfecting the world in the kingship of Divine”.
The Hebrew word generally used for tribe is shevet; when grand-father Jacob concludes his blessings-descriptions of his twelve sons, certainly highlighting the differences and even the tensions between them, the Biblical text states “all of these are the tribes (shivtei) of Israel, twelve (in number) ....” (Genesis 49:28). Similarly, our Torah reading this week speaks of half the tribe (shevet) of Menasheh” (Numbers 32:33).
However, there is another Hebrew word used for tribe, matteh, and it is the noun in the very opening verse of our torah portion: “And Moses spoke to the heads of tribes..._(mattot, translated by Targum as shivtaya)” (Numbers 30:2). The very Book of Numbers, which opens with a census count of each of the tribes, provides for a representative of each tribe, “one man per tribe” - lamatteh, (Numbers 1:4). Indeed, in the Book of Numbers the Hebrew word matteh (and not shevet) is used for tribe no less than 91 times! What is the reason for these two different Hebrew nouns for the very same concept of tribe? And what is the precise distinction between shevet and matteh?
According to most of our classical commentaries, shevet is to be defined as a ruling rod whereas matteh is a supporting staff. When grand-father Jacob blesses Judah, he declares,“The rod (shevet) shall not depart from Judah...” The Talmudic Sages interpret, “the rod refers to the exilarchs of Babylon, who strong-handedly (tyrannically) rule the nation with a rod; they derive their authority from the Gentile governments” (Genesis 49:10, Rashi ad loc). The Hebrew word matteh, on the other hand, is a supporting staff, as in the modern Hebrew position of RaMatKal, or Chief of Staff, with staff referring to a support group of Knowledgeable and experienced individuals. In our Book of Numbers, when Korah challenged Aaron’s leadership as High Priest from the tribe of Levi, each tribe was asked by G-d to take a staff and write upon the staff the name of the prince of each tribe; on the staff of the tribe of Levi was to be written the name of Aaron. “...And behold, the staff of Aaron of the tribe of Levi flowered, a flower arose, a bud blossomed and almond fruit matured” (Numbers 17:24). The staff (matteh) of the tribe (matteh) of Levi supported Aaron’s appointment as High Priest, Kohen Gadol. The best Hebrew translation of matteh is mishenet, a word used for the support staff of an elderly person with difficulty walking, and is also a Talmudic idiom for the son of a widow who serves as her aid and benefactor. This is likewise how many commentaries understand King David’s psalm (23): “ The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He leads me through green pastures...Your rod (shivtekha) and your staff (mishantekha), they comfort me”. The Psalmist is saying that sometimes he feels G-d’s punishing rod, and sometimes he feels G-d’s supporting staff; in both cases they give him comfort, because he knows that G-d means for his well-being! (In this context, mishenet is a synonym for matteh).
In effect, the Torah is teaching us that a nation comprised of different and distinctive tribes has both negative and positive possibilities. On the one hand, a particular tribe can be desirous of unilateral control (shevet), initiating a rivalry and even war. The United States of America - the individual states being analogous to the various tribes - underwent just such a fierce and threatening Civil War.
But too centralized a governmental power can turn unity into uniformity and produce all of the tyranny of a totalitarian Tower of Babel. Different tribes - each with its own cultural flavor, temperament and specific point of view - can provide a unity with diversity, an orchestra comprised of many individual instruments, as long as there is one conductor who recognizes, respects and knows how to “orchestrate” the different sounds into one magnificent symphony. Obviously, the tribes must subscribe to a united goal and agree upon basic values, ideals and rules of conduct. But differences which are respected and which respect others can provide the breadth, depth and growth possibility which is the best defense against stagnation and tyranny. Such a system of inclusive leadership will also leave room for many more individuals to express themselves and for special interest groups to contribute and flourish.
Hence the world must have different nations, nations must have different cities (tribes, edot), cities must have different communities, communities must have different committees, and committees must have different families. It must be, in my grand-mother’s words, a “velt mit veltelakh, a world with little worlds, - as long as each little world, as well as the greater world, remains committed to the integrity and inviolability of every individual and does not countenance fanatic bigotry in any form. As the prophet Micah teaches, as long as “humanity does not learn war anymore,” “every individual can call upon his god and we will call upon the Lord our G-d forever.” (Micah 4).