Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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25 Iyar 5760 - May 31, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
Each One to his Camp and Each to His Banner

by L. Jungerman

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 Sanhedrin.

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 characterized it.

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 Heaven.


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 disuse.

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" (Erkin 32b).

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 4).

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