The Midrash Tanchuma tells us that Hashem loved the
Jews especially, and for this sake, gave them banners (as
described in parshas Bamidbor) like the ministering
angels so that they would be visible: the tribe of Reuven
apart, the tribe of Shimon apart . . .
HaRav Yonah Merzbach zt'l writes: The historic tableau
of a nation of twelve tribes, as we know them during their
travels in the desert, during the capturing of Eretz Yisroel
and in later years, does not have an incidental impact on the
nation's development and history. Rather, we must regard it
as an essential structure of the Jewish people. This is
evidenced by the fact that a great number of our commandments
relate to this tribal composition.
First, we can prove it by the homiletic interpretation of the
verse, "Judges and law enforcers shall you establish for you
in all of your gates that Hashem your G-d shall give you in
your tribes" (Devorim 16:18), which doubtlessly
obligates us to establish separate courts according to the
tribes (Sanhedrin 16b). Each court wielded authority
only over its particular tribe and consequently, it was
necessary to establish numerous courts in those cities whose
population was comprised of inhabitants from several tribes.
Aside from this, according to the Ramban, each tribe had to
establish its own Sanhedrin, modeled after the great
Sanhedrin in Jerusalem that ruled over the entire nation.
We can infer from here that the division of the people into
twelve tribes, as commanded by Hashem on a permanent basis,
is not merely an external or organizational structure. If we
see that a great Torah scholar who happens to live within the
area of a tribe different from his is not permitted to judge
the people of that particular tribe, nor can he become the
ruler of a tribe to which he does not belong, we must infer
that there are fundamental reasons preventing it. This must
be understood within the context of the fact that each tribe
received orders and rulings from the Sanhedrin of their
particular tribe, alongside those orders and rulings that
were issued for the body of the whole nation from the Great
We see thus that each tribe had a unique place and role
within the people, that the members of that tribe shared a
common outlook, a tribal character that differed from those
of other tribes. Only from a similar spiritual outlook, a
common lifestyle and shared values special to them, could
they be properly guided within their tribal structure. This
is succinctly summed up in the gemora, "It is a mitzva
for the tribe to judge itself."
Each of the twelve tribes had an individual character and
role, different tendencies, strengths and talents, whereby
members of that tribe could be easily identified. Each tribe
had to concentrate upon its heritage and preserve its
particular traditions and customs and the lifestyle that
Since the tribal natures differed, it follows that their
manner of achieving closeness to Hashem was also disparate.
We can also explain the present-day differences in prayer
texts according to the following quote: "There are twelve
gates in Heaven, corresponding to the twelve tribes; each
tribe has its own gate and custom" (Mogen Avrohom par.
68). Each tribe had its unique manner of prayer which exactly
suited its spiritual makeup, and only via that nusach
could it express its service to Hashem and gain access to
We were warned, however, that there is a collective
conscience as well, and that if one tribe sinned and rebelled
the entire nation was held responsible. A sacrifice was
necessary to atone for them all. The halocho states
that even if one tribe sinned as one body, the entire nation
was required to bring an offering of atonement, for the other
tribes had not fulfilled their obligation of monitoring the
spiritual level of their errant fellow tribe (Hilchos
Shegogos, chap. 12:1).
When Yaakov Ovinu lay upon his deathbed, he was deeply
concerned over the future of his children and what would
become of them. His spirit was only made easy when they all
collectively declared before him, "Shema Yisroel --
Hear, O Yisroel, Hashem is our G-d . . . " He then exhorted
them to preserve two things: their tribal uniqueness, and
their individual fealty and loyalty to Hashem.
The tribal differences within the nation proved that, indeed,
there can exist different Torah subcultures within the nation
and that this is, in fact, part of the will of Hashem. The
positions may be different, even in basics, but are still
valid so long as they are united in their absolute loyalty to
the Torah and in their desire to uphold and fulfill it.
These various subcultures, or different streams within
Judaism, are rooted within the land. There is, for example,
the Chassidic stream, with its fervor and high-keyed
emotionalism, side by side with the `colder' yeshivishe
stream, who conduct their lives according to the pure logic
of halocho and who find their purpose in life, and
happiness and fulfillment, through pure Torah study. There
are other lifestyles as well, each with their different
natures, like Hungarian chareidi Jewry or the
variations of the spectrum of the Sephardic communities.
Are we permitted to point to any one way as the one-and-only
form of worship, or seek to underplay the importance of any
genuine Jewish community, and hope that with time, its
strength will diminish and it will disappear, G-d forbid?
Each tribe is its own community, states the Mishna.
This teaches that every Jewish way of life is valid, so
long as it conforms to the central yardstick of the camp of
Torah Jewry. Each stream is acceptable and is considered a
self contained community which is recognized by the greater
body of the people.
[All this also shows how much legitimate variation is
possible within the general framework of Torah Jewry. It is
not a confining system that does not allow individual
expression. There is much room for innovation and unique
contributions, as long as there is the fundamental and
unwavering commitment to the Torah way of life.]
All the tribes, with their individual and unique makeup and
character, together form the totality of the Jewish people.
Only when the tribes are unified, within an individual
organized framework, can the entire nation fulfill the entire
body of the Torah's 613 commandments. We see that when two
and a half tribes were distanced, a certain number of
commandments could no longer be fulfilled and fell into
The yovel year is no longer valid under present
circumstances (Rambam: Shmitta Veyovel 10). The same
applies to the laws of Jewish slaves, ger toshov,
homes in walled cities etc. And, according to many
poskim, not even shmitta is valid today, under
present circumstances, from the Torah. "And you shall
proclaim liberty throughout the land" (Vayikra 25:10).
Only when all of its residents are on the land. "We might
think that this [declaring the Jubilee year and proclaiming
liberty etc.] applies even when the residents are all
residing on the land, but they are intermingled: the tribe of
Binyomin with that of Yehuda and vice versa, therefore does
the Torah say, `to all of its residents,' at a time when its
residents reside as they traditionally did [within tribal
borders] and not at a time when they are intermingled"
We must conclude, then, that the ideal condition for the
optimal fulfillment of Torah is only when there is a
composite unity of all the different approaches, the
different lifestyles within the nation. "All the miracles
which Hashem performed for Yisroel in the past and which He
is destined to perform in the future are by virtue of their
tribes. So, too, will the Beis Hamikdosh be built in the
merit of all the tribes" (Pesikta Rabbosi deRav Kahana