Thursday, May 24, 2012


5 Sivan 5772 / May 25-26, 2012

This week we read the portion of Bamidbar, the first portion in the Book of Numbers (book #4 of the 5 books).  The Book of Numbers chronicles the journey of the Israelites from Mt. Sinai, where they received the Torah, to the edge of the Promised Land. 

At the beginning of the portion, we immediately encounter a census.  It was understood that the journey to the Promised Land would inevitably have some battles along the way, so the Israelites took a census of fighting-aged males, and then stationed them in particular locations around the Tabernacle (and the Ark) by tribe (each tribe being the descendants of one of Jacob’s 12 sons).  Not including the Levites (who were to take care of the Israelites’ ritual needs), the Torah tells us that all together there were 603,550 males aged 20+ who were able to bear arms.  Not too shabby!

Due to the tribal divisions in this week’s portion, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the concept of tribalism v. universalism.  I am a proud Member of the Tribe (“MOT”), while at the same time I feel a connection and appreciation for my role as a citizen of the world. 

What is it to be part of a tribe?  Or part of THE tribe?

There is no question that throughout history, the need has existed for groups to form in order to ensure self-preservation. Our history as a human species is incredibly tribal, as there is power (and thus security) in numbers.

My Jewish upbringing, values and continued learning without question impact my feeling of being an MOT, as does the realization of shared experience.  I staffed a Birthright Israel trip a couple of years ago, and in discussions with one of the Israeli soldiers randomly assigned to be on our bus, who remains a close friend, we learned that both of our grandmothers had fought in the Haganah – an instant link shared between two complete strangers living across the world from one another.  Tribal.

Even within the Jewish people, it could be argued that there are numerous tribes (just as there was a tribe formed by each of Jacob’s sons’ families).  And yet, the concept of it being a “small Jewish world” due to the ability for most Jews to be within three degrees of one another (with apologies to Kevin Bacon), and, as I like to joke, with Jewish Geography being offered as a minor at my alma mater of Brandeis University, also adds to the sense of being part of a unique subset of the global population – a distinct group.  A tribe. 

But what is it to identify as part of a tribe in a world that due to technological advances continually becomes flatter and more accessible? Is the love we have for our own truly any different than the love we have for human beings everywhere?  And in particular, those who are suffering?

I think the answer lies in the beauty and power of organizations such as the American Jewish World Service.  Informed by our tribal instincts to care for our own, we harmonize those values with our vision of a just and interlinked globe, and thus our universalistic ideals and connectedness to humankind become expressions of our tribal identities.

This week at the close of Shabbat we begin the holiday of Shavuot, where we celebrate the Israelites receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The Torah, our tribe’s narrative, is what has distinguished our Tribe from others throughout history. 

I challenge you to make the time to read and study it.  To learn our tribe’s narrative.  To learn why we are the way we are, and why we value what we value.  To learn how to ensure that our tribe remains strong, and through our collective strength, to bring our universalistic ideals to life.

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