Posts Tagged ‘tribalism’

Parshat Bamidbar

June 13, 2019

One of my favorite Jewish activities is delivering a d’var Torah — commentary on the weekly Torah portion read at Shabbat services. Here’s one I wrote last week for the Bamidbar portion (or parsha in Hebrew), the opening section of the book of Numbers. I start with a basic summary of the section and then go on to some reflections about it.


Bamidbar is the first parsha in the book also named Bamidbar, or in English, Numbers. Bamidbar means “in the desert:” It speaks broadly to both the geographic status and spiritual status of the Israelites as they continue their journey from Egypt to the promised land. “Numbers” – from the Greek translation of the Bible — is a narrower title, and refers to the census that takes up the bulk of this parsha and to another census at the end of the book as the Israelites prepare to enter the promised land.

In this week’s parsha, God commands Moses to take a census of the Israelites, by tribe, which he does with the help of a designated leader from each tribe. The parsha reports the number of adult men (aged 20 through 60, basically men capable of fighting in battle) in each tribe, which adds up to a total of 603,550 adult men. The community as a whole – adding in women, children, and the elderly – probably adds up to at least 1.5 million.

Moses-census

A 19th century imagining of the census: Engraving by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux (1815–1884)

God assigns specific campsites to each tribe on the four sides of the tent of meeting, where God abides while the Israelites travel through the desert. God also assigns them specific marching spots.

God excludes the Levites from the census and gives them a special status of being in charge of setting up, dismantling and carrying all the equipment for the tent of meeting. The Levites receive this special designation as a follow-up to a condition that God set back in Egypt. When God killed all the first-born of the Egyptians, s/he told Moses that the first-born sons and cattle of the Israelites should be consecrated  to God in recompense. Here God tells Moses to have the Levites stand in as replacements for all those Jewish first-born.

Stepping back to think about this parsha, why all this attention to numbers and to organizational structure?

One way to view this census is creating order out of chaos. As the Israelites travel through the silent, empty desert, they find it a place of reflection, for hearing the voice of God, and purging old, unwanted slave ways of being, but they also find it a place of confusion, anarchy, and despair. (As we see in their frequent wails to return to Egypt and in the chaotic episode of the Golden Calf.)

It’s a place of silence and emptiness. But as humans, we need structure and order in our lives.

We need a structure to our time. Those of us with children in their 20s – or those of us who can remember our own 20s – know how disorienting it can be to finish college, the first time in our lives we are without the structure of classes and homework.

Or looking at the other end of the age spectrum, retirement. It can be disorienting, even depressing, to suddenly find oneself without the familiar structure and demands of paid work. One response is to seek out new structures – volunteer commitments, weekly babysitting for grandchildren, adult ed classes or gym routines, as a way to provide structure to all that open time.

Think about the Israelites. They came from an even more structured world than we live in — a world of slavery, where every aspect of their time and life was determined by others. And suddenly they are in the desert, no hierarchy, no structure, no knowledge of where exactly they are going or how long it will take to get there. We can only imagine how disoriented they felt, and how reassuring it must have been to know at least where in the line they were supposed to march and where they were to set up camp.

Along with the structure of time, we also crave the structure of community – feeling that we belong to something more intimate than “homo sapiens.”

On the most intimate level, that means being part of a family, a couple, or a close friendship circle. Many of us, including myself, take pleasure these days in trying to deepen our knowledge of our families through genealogy. We are doing our own kind of census, but one that goes back in time – identifying as many great-great-great grandparents and far-flung cousins as we can.

Then there are the less intimate ways that we sort ourselves into communities – we’re Jews, or Democrats and Republicans, or Warriors fans, or Grateful Dead heads, or African-Americans, or yoga practitioners, or Oakland Tech parents, or Star Trek fans.

Being part of a tribe helps us feel rooted and less alone in the desert. It gives us a sense of connection with others — shared joy at successes, shared sorrow at setbacks.

But it also has its risks. Today, our modern version of tribalism has run amok. People from the coasts talk contemptuously about flyover country. (Guilty!) People who watch Fox News disregard anything that challenges their world-view as “fake news.” Many white people refuse to acknowledge the historical pain of African-Americans. A vicious nationalism that targets minority groups like Jews and Muslims is spreading in Europe. The president of the United States reduces everything to an “us versus them” smackdown with taunts and bullying. And I don’t even want to start about the damage done by “tribal” identities in today’s Middle East. These things all represent the dark side of tribal identity.

In Bamidbar, Moses takes a census by tribe but he also records the names of each individual person.

“On the first day of the second month, they convoked the whole company, who were registered by the clans of their ancestral houses – the names of those aged twenty and over being listed head by head. As the Eternal had commanded Moses, so he listed them in the wilderness of Sinai.”

Yes, the census records just the adult men: This is yet another place in the Bible where we have to sigh and make allowances for it as a historical text from a time of unquestioned patriarchy. (I don’t quite know how Moses could have managed to record 603,000 names, but we can let that go too.)

The key thing is that in addition to recognizing tribes, he is recognizing individuals.

Think about how validating this must have been for those Israelite men – former slaves, with no rights to own property or enter legal contracts or even determine what they were going to do when they woke up in the morning, now being asked to step forward and state their name for God and the world to hear. It sent a message to the Israelites that each individual was important and autonomous and valued.

To us, it also sends a message of diversity within community. They are part of a tribe, but they are also individuals.

Take a moment and think about the tribal boxes that you mentally put people in. Nearly all of us do it – I certainly do, even if I don’t do it intentionally.

“All those Trump voters.”

“All those cops.”

“All those Arabs.”

“All those tech bro’s.”

“All those gun owners.”

Let’s stop here and think. What boxes do you lump people into?

The next time you are tempted to do that, remember they are individuals. Part of a tribe, yes, but also an individual name. Each with her or his own story – their own aspirations and loves and hidden wounds. With individual reasons for the choices they make and lives they lead.

Think of them as individuals like yourself. Don’t do this just because it’s the warm and fuzzy thing to do, but because it’s true. And it will determine the success of your interactions with others, whether those are individual conversations or political campaign strategies.

It’s how God and Moses viewed the Israelites – members of tribes but also unique individuals. Each of us should aim to do the same.

Shabbat shalom.