Tribe and Tribalism
The ending of Sefer Bemidbar is a little depressing. Previously the daughters of Zelofchad had been told that they could inherit their father’s portion of land, despite the fact that they were women, in order for the family name to survive.
Now, Zelofchad’s clan, Machir from Menasheh, is worried: “if they marry a member of another tribe of the children of Israel, their inheritance will be diminished from the inheritance of our father” (Bemidbar 36:3).
Simply put, were Zelofchad’s daughters to marry people from a different tribe, their portion of land would be transferred to that tribe, causing Menasheh a loss of territory. In order to avert this, a new decree is issued: “Every daughter from the tribes of the children of Israel who inherits property, shall marry a member of her father's tribe” (ibid 8). Landowning women could only marry members from their own tribe.
A barrier between different types of Israelites was erected, and tribal identity was enhanced.
Throughout the Bible, tribal identity was stronger than Israel’s national identity. Chapter 2 of Sefer Shoftim describes how the tribes were left on their own to conquer their lands. Only two tribes, Shimon and Yehuda cooperated and helped each other.
Furthermore, after Devorah’s victory over Sisera, she sings a song praising the six tribes who aided her and criticizes the five who did not. Yet, she does not even mention Yehuda. Apparently, there was no doubt that Yehuda would remain neutral despite Israel’s troubles.
Interestingly enough, when King Sha’ul gathers an army, “he numbered them in Bezek; and the children of Israel were three hundred thousand, and the men of Judah thirty thousand” (I Shmuel 11:8). He did not gather 330,000 soldiers from Israel, but 300,000 from Israel and 30,000 from Yehuda. The author is saying that Sha’ul was so successful in uniting the people that he even succeeded in gathering a large force from Yehuda.
Indeed, only with Sha’ul is the country first called: “Erets Yisrael (ibid 13:9); until this point, the country was really twelve independent states.
King David is so conscious of the tribal loyalties, that when he reunites the people after years of civil war, he chooses a new capital, Jerusalem, a border city that had never been in Israel’s hands, so that no one tribe could claim dominion over the other. His heir King Shlomo tries to destroy tribal identity by creating twelve new administrative districts not based on tribal allotments: “Shlomo had twelve officers over all Israel, who provided victuals for the king and his household: each man had to make provision for a month in the year” (I Kings 4:7).
Unfortunately, Shlomo’s efforts failed and within a generation, ten tribes broke away from Yehuda (ibid 12:19).
Tribal identity is only finally shattered in exile: “There was a Yehudi in Shushan the castle, whose name was Mordechai the son of Jair the son of Shimi the son of Kish, a Benjamite” (Esther 2:5). Even though he was from Benyamin, Mordechai was still considered a Yehudi, a member of Yehuda.
The process of tribalization seems to have been given a boost in Sefer Bemidbar. “The children of Israel shall encamp each man by his division with the flag staffs of their fathers' house; some distance from the Tent of Meeting they shall encamp” (Bemidbar 2:2). Moshe counts them in their tribes, settles them in camps based on their tribe, and gives them all flags and an insignia.
Indeed, the rebellions in the book of Bemidbar seem to be tribal; The spies had one representative of each tribe (bid 13:2), suggesting inter-tribal suspicion, and in the after math of Korach’s rebellion, each tribe had to present its staff with its insignia to the Mishkan (ibid 17:17).
The situation hits such a peak that at the beginning of this week’s parsha, that Moshe reports to the tribal heads: “Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel, saying” (ibid 30:2).
Why did Moshe allow and even encourage this tribaliaztion process?
The solution to this problem can be found by the word Sefer Bemidbar uses to define a tribe: “Mateh” – "מטה". This word is almost unique to Bemidbar. Throughout the rest of the Torah, the word used is “Shevet” - "שבט".
What is the difference between a “shevet” and and a “mateh”? Both words mean: “staff”. Each staff had its unique insignia that was engraved on it. Clans identified themselves by their staff and were allied to it. It was the symbol of their tribe and the word came to mean “tribe”.
Yet there are two types of staff: a “shevet” and a “mateh”. A shevet is a stick used for hitting (“Your rod [shevet] and Your staff, they comfort me” - Tehillim 23:4), while a “mateh” is used for guidance (“Say to Ahron, stretch forth your hand with your staff [matheh]” - Shemot 8:1).
Moshe acknowledged the existence of 12 tribes with their identities. He tried to build a system whereby they would work together as Mattot. Unfortunately, soon after his death they started to work against each other, as Shevatim.
Today the tribes of Israel still exist, but in a different format. It is incumbent for us all to work together as mattot and not to fall into the conflict of shevatim.