Many Tribes, One People

Different tribes living together is never easy. This week the world has seen America torn apart once again on racial grounds. Even before this latest flare up, both America and to lesser degree the UK, have themselves increasingly been torn apart by their tribal political groups with each side increasingly convinced that the others are genuinely bad people with terrible motives. 

Nation building is always a challenge. It has been foremost on the mind of political thinkers and world leaders for millennia. Ancient Israel always struggled with the relative position of the tribes and the nation.[1] The entire Book of Bamidbar repeatedly returns to this theme, providing a vision of how this can be done. Its model sets up the ideal that should be the aspiration for every Jewish community, for the whole nation of Israel, and ultimately the Messianic model for all mankind.

The Torah’s model will develop over the entire book, but a strong outline can be seen from its first two readings, including the end of this week’s portion – Naso (which means ‘to elevate’). The word appears at first as an instruction to Moshe to elevate the Levite families responsible for the transport of the structure and housing of the Israel’s portable Temple – the Mishkan.[2] But the word is repeated in different ways throughout the various themes of the Sedra. The elevation of the Levite families is for them to ‘carry’ (4:24; 31; 49 etc) and to ‘lift up’ (4:25). The elevation of the camp ends with the guilty adulterous ‘carrying’ her sin (5:31). The priestly blessing culminates in the request for God to ‘lift up’ His countenance to bless us with peace (5:26). Then an entire 88 verses are dedicated to the description of the inaugural offerings of the tribal leaders – the nesi’im whose name refers both to their elevated status and their role in elevating others (7:1-88).

It is the enormity of the section of the tribal leaders that is puzzling in several ways. Each one of their offerings is described precisely. The only problem is that each one of them brought precisely the same offering. For a Torah that is so economical with its wording, the repetitiveness is so out of character as to be blatantly conveying something crucial. 

But there is also a problem of chronology. The offerings were brought on twelve consecutive days that started from the day the portable Temple was inaugurated on the first day of the first month (Nisan) almost a full year after the Exodus. It is the day that gets by far the most coverage in Torah covering the last parts of the book of Shemos (Exodus),[3] and almost all of Vayikra (Leviticus).[4] As the book of Bamidbar (Numbers) begins, it seems is if we have finally moved forward, starting with the census from the next month.[5] But then this week’s Torah reading takes us back once again to that day.[6] Whilst it is clear that a whole new dimension is added by telling us about the tribal offerings, the question is why did the Torah not mention all this when it narrated the events of the day itself? Why did it need to jump forward a month to tell us about the national census and then come back to the story with this new piece? What is all this telling us? 

To understand this requires an understanding of the fundamental project of the fourth book of Torah – Bamidbar. Usually in English it goes by the translation ‘The Book of Numbers’, itself an attempted translation of the Rabbi’s title: ‘Chumash hapekudim’.[7] Ostensibly the justification for such a title is that the book contains not one but two national censuses of Israel. But this would hardly seem to thematically link the whole book. It tells us nothing about the spies who lead the first generation to reject the land of Israel; nothing about the rebellion of Korach; nothing about the attempted curses of the wizard Balaam; nor of the debates about tribal apportionment. In short it would be a poor title choice for the book. 

Moreover, the word ‘numbers’ is not only offensive to contemporary sensibilities; it is offensive to Torah itself. It is ordinarily forbidden to count Jews, and doing so typically leads to disaster.[8] Number reduces the significance of the family units, and the individual people. Yet Torah makes a point of preserving those very identities that numbering undermines: ‘…according to their families, their ancestral lineages, according to the number of names!’[9]

How are we to make sense of all this?

The clue lies in the Hebrew name, the ‘Book of Pekudim’, which means far more than ‘numbers’. Versions of the word pekod are used throughout the Torah to mean variously ‘an appointed time’,[10] an accounting,[11] and a role.[12] What it always refers to is the position of an element within a greater structure.[13] The census was not so much designed to discover aggregate numbers. It was doing something far more profound; it was about creating a camp that was built out of finding the position and role of every individual within it.[14]

For almost a year the people have been standing at the foot of Mount Sinai receiving Torah. The opening words of Bamdibar ‘… in the desert of Sinai’[15] they change position from people looking up the mountain, to looking out into the desert. The challenge now is how to move together as one people to be able to carry God’s presence with them. How can many tribes succeed in living together, becoming one people, without losing their identity?

That is what the ‘Book of Positions’ comes to answer. 

When they stood at Sinai they did so ‘like one person with one beating heart’.[16] Any single body is made up of numerous organs that depend upon each other. Each has a specific and specialized role to play and each needs the other. Within each organ are organelles, and within those there are tissues. Each might have specialized cells with their own unique features. The body works, precisely because each area combines radical specialization within a common genetic code. The more common the genetics the more specific and differentiated each cell can be. 

That is the model that is constructed for the camp. Each tribe has a role and a position. Within each tribe are unique sub-families, and within each of them are sub lineages. Finally, there are the actual individuals. The key to building the nation is to find the precise perfect position of each.

So, it is not a ‘Book of Numbers’ after all. It is a ‘Book of Positions’ or ‘Roles’ of individual parts within the broader unity of Israel. And that is precisely the theme of the whole book. It is precisely why the spies had to be selected from different tribes. It is precisely what Korach was rebelling against.[17] It is precisely this integrated oneness with respect for each individual tent that made Balaam give up on his attempt to curse them.[18] And it is the precise jockeying for the relative roles of the tribes and their relationship to Israel that makes up so much of the closing discussions.[19]

Now that the Torah jumped forward a month to give us this perspective, this week’s reading takes us back to the inauguration of the Mishkan – the portable Temple. Until now we had learned of how Moshe and Aaron had inaugurated the Mishkan. But we could not yet appreciate the significance of the tribal leaders bringing their offerings. If the Mishkan was to be our portable Sinai,[20] then just like Sinai needed the people to come together as one, so the service in that Mishkan would require each tribe to play its role to bring the nation together as one. 

It is true that each tribal leader brought the same offering as the other. But the Torah painstakingly repeats the precise words. Why could it not have listed in detail the offering of the first tribal leader, Nachshon ben Aminadav of Judah, and then said something like, ‘and Netanel ben Tzuar, leader of Yissachar, offered the same on the second day; and Eliav ben Cheilon, leader of Zevulun, offered the same on the third day…’ and so on for all the tribal leaders?

The implication is that the same words – representing the same offerings – actually have different meanings in the context of being brought by a representative of a different tribe. The materials that the leader of Judah brought are different because Judah brought them. Give the same materials into the hands of the tribe of Yissachar, and they take on a whole different meaning. Each tribe has a unique flavor; a unique soul that they brig to bear with each offered item that makes the offering a totally different experience. So unique and specialized was the tribe that to say that the leader of Yissachar ‘offered the same’ as the leader of Judah, would be misleading and inaccurate.

That is what it takes to truly do what is meant by the word Naso and nasi – to become elevated by elevating others.

It is an incredible idea, but it is one that must lie at the core of any successful attempt to build a nation. We need the different tribes. We need them to be different. We need to appreciate how each one brings something so special to the precise same laws, rules and offerings. We need to live together to one shared dream and vision; we need to beat with one heart. But we need each community, each family, and each individual to bring to bear the full specialization and uniqueness that we cannot live without.

Only when we can look at every community and every individual as inextricable, and having something to offer that no one else can, only then can we hope to move forward in building a nation capable of bringing God’s Presence back to earth. 


[1] The most painful extremes include the inter-tribal wars in Shoftim (Judges) 12:1-6; and ch.20. See the eventual division of the kingdom along tribal lines Melochim (Kings) I 12:16-23.

[2] Those responsible for carrying the holy vessels housed within, were already ‘elevated’ in the previous week’s reading (Bamidbar 4:2).

[3] See eg. Shemos 40:17.

[4] See eg. Vayikra 9:1 onwards.

[5] Bamidbar 1:1

[6] 7:1

[7] See eg. Yoma 3a

[8] Shemos 30:12, see Rashi there.

[9] Bamidbar 1:2

[10] Eg. Bereishis 21:1. It is similarly used to mean an appointed moment of redemption, eg. Bereishis 50:24-25.

[11] Eg. Shemos 38:21

[12] As in the Hebrew word tafkid. Also related is the word for appointing someone to a position, eg. Bamidbar 1:50 

[13] See eg. R’ZH Mecklenburg (1785-1865) Hakesav vehakabala, Shemos 38:21

[14] See R’M Weinberg, Frameworks Au Desert/Numbers pp.25-35

[15] 1:1

[16] Rashi to Shemos 19:2 sv Vayichan based on Mechilta

[17] See Rashi, Bamidbar 16:1, sv VeDasan VaAviram

[18] See Ramban, Bamidbar 13:2 

[19] See eg. 36:1-4

[20] See Ramban, Shemos 24:1

- June 5th 2020

About the Author

Rabbi Daniel Rowe Rabbi Daniel Rowe is the Executive Director of Aish UK. He holds a BA in Philosophy from University College London and an MPhil in Philosophy from Birkbeck College. He studied for a decade in Israel in various Talmudic institutes and is considered one of the most dynamic Jewish speakers in the UK, teaching in campuses, communities and schools across the country. Rabbi Rowe is known for his ability to tackle difficult topics and has numerous videos and articles online. In 2016, Rabbi Rowe took part in a live televised debate with a leading atheist, dubbed "The God Debate".  Rabbi Rowe has played an instrumental role in the creation and development of many organisations and initiatives such as the Forum for Jewish Leadership, the Aleinu Conference and Shabbat UK.

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