Matot (Israel): Conformity or unity?

Why have 12 tribes instead of one undivided nation?

Rabbi Berel Wein,

Judaism Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein
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Throughout the entire Torah it seems clear that the Jewish people were to maintain the system of separate tribes with separate leaders. At first glance, it seems that this system of separate tribes would always guarantee a strong element of disunity within the Jewish people. Would it not have been better to discard the original tribal system of the house of Jacob and build instead a more unified community?

Also, when the Land of Israel was settled and inhabited by the Jews at the time of Joshua, it was distributed in tribal sections, according to the rules of the Torah. The next few centuries, as the Bible itself records for us in the book of Judges, disunity, if not even chaos reigned in the Jewish community. Each tribe looked at itself as a separate and distinct entity having little responsibility or connection to the broader Jewish community. 

Eventually, the sad fact would arise that the tribes at certain stages of biblical history, would even conduct civil war amongst themselves. The Torah obviously was aware of this danger but continued to emphasize the tribal nature of the Jewish people and of its leaders. The Torah explicitly names the individual leaders of the tribes and counts the population of each tribe separately, one from another. Though this question is rarely addressed directly by the commentators to the Torah, it does underlie much of their insights and viewpoints into the Jewish story of the biblical period.

It seems to me that the Torah here is emphasizing the important, but often overlooked, difference between unity and conformity. Each of the tribes, and certainly each of the leaders of those tribes, bring something different to the table of society. The Talmud teaches us that just as the physical features of human beings differ one from another so too do their opinions, thought processes and worldviews differ.

Conformity amongst human beings is against our very nature. That is why children raised in the very same home and who are products of the very same genetic makeup, are frequently very different from one another in temperament, behavior and opinion. Often, these differences present problems in families and in societies. Nevertheless, the Torah is willing to deal with these problems rather than enforce a rigid conformity upon the Jewish world.

The unifying force in Judaism and in Jewish society is the Torah itself. Every Jew has a share in it and is bound with a commitment to honor, study, observe and live by its values. But that unity, as is evident from an even cursory observation of the Jewish world today, and in fact of all of past Jewish history, never advocates a society of conformity.

Dictators and tyrants have from time immemorial attempted to impose conformity on their subjects and citizens. Eventually such attempts fail simply because they are contrary to human nature. The task of ancient and modern Israel - and of the Jewish people as a whole, is to create the unity of spirit and commitment that the Torah represents, without falling into the trap of tyrannical conformity.





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