This week's Torah portion or parsha is called Matot, a Hebrew word that we translate as tribes. The parsha begins with, "And Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel" (Numbers 30:2).
And we understand that some 3,000 years ago, there were a group of tribes that collectively were known as the Hebrews and the Israelites, and later became known as the Jewish people. And some three millennia later, here in America, we sometimes refer to ourselves, to the Jewish people as the tribe, and to ourselves as members of the tribe.
And there's a touch of Jewish humor, and more than a little irony, in calling ourselves the tribe. After all, we are citizens in a democracy; we make our homes in cities and suburbs; we go to school and get high school, undergraduate, and graduate degrees; we work in businesses and professions; and we are surrounded by gadgets and gizmos and all sorts of advanced technology. And we are comfortable and more or less happy to be living in the modern world. Sure, civilization has its discontents, as Sigmund Freud put it, but we generally don't wax nostalgic about being nomads. We don't long for a return to living in tents out in the wilderness, hunting and gathering just to survive. We don't romanticize the tribal way of life of our ancestors, certainly not along the same lines that the 17th century English playwright John Dryden introduced the concept of the noble savage, a stereotype famously invoked by the 18th century French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Moreover, for us as Americans, the word tribe is most closely associated with the people encountered by Christopher Columbus and the Europeans who followed him in exploring and inhabiting the western hemisphere. For those of us of a certain age, the indigenous peoples of the New World were known collectively as Indians, and we also learned that they could be broken down into separate Indian tribes, the Navajo, the Apache, the Cherokee, the Comanche, the Hopi, and the list goes on to include some 566 tribes recognized by the United States government, which still officially uses the name Indian, as in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Although the noble savage stereotype was established early in the history of European colonization of the New World, and invoked in our stories about Pocahontas, and how the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock celebrated the first Thanksgiving, Europeans also have a long history of oppression and persecution of these indigenous peoples, beginning with the abusive treatment by Christopher Columbus as governor of the island of Hispaniola, continuing with the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors, with the French, Dutch, and English settlers in North America, and with the western expansion of the American republic. I think we all know about the broken treaties and the confinement of native populations to Indian reservations. And we also know about how the old, traditional western genre in literature, film, and broadcasting worked, where the cowboys were always the good guys, and the Indians the bad guys. And as the bad guys, the Indians would always lose. And I think we are all aware of the racism they were subjected to as well, and the fact that somehow, despite all the progress we made in regard to Civil Rights, we still have a football team named the Washington Redskins.
But our attitudes have changed dramatically over the past half century, and this is reflected in the fact that, outside of our government and the National Football League, we prefer the phrase Native Americans today, and associate it with more progressive attitudes towards a minority group that constitutes about 2% of the total US population, about 5.2 million people according to the latest census. This is pretty close to the percentage of the US population that is Jewish, a little less than the total number who identify themselves as ethnically Jewish, a little more than those of us who identify ourselves as Jewish by religion. But our sense of connection is about more than numbers, or the use of the word tribe, or even the fact that the first Europeans to encounter Native American peoples thought they might be lost tribes of Israelites, which was an idea that figured prominently in the Mormon religion. Our sense of connection also has much to do with our long tradition of social justice, and our great sympathy, and empathy, for oppressed peoples wherever we encounter them. That is why the Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement in America extended to the fight for justice for Native Americans.
Congress passed the Indian Civil Rights Act in 1968, but civil rights for Native Americans is a more complicated issue than it has been for other minority groups. From the very founding of the American republic, our government has negotiated treaties with Native American tribes, and therefore has recognized those tribes, as sovereign entities. Tribal sovereignty is limited, but it does mean that Native Americans can be dual citizens of the United States and of what our government refers to as domestic dependent nations. It is not all that common to refer to the tribes as nations here in the United States, but across the border in Canada, Native Americans are now commonly called First Nations. And more generally elsewhere, the word nation has been used in place of tribe more and more often in recent decades. That's because the word tribe has some negative connotations, associated with the savage, the primitive, the archaic, while nation confers a much greater degree of respect and legitimacy on a group of people.
But what, then, is a tribe? In one sense, a tribe is an extension of a family, and the term is synonymous with clan, although sometimes tribes are seen as composed of several different clans. But we see the idea of kinship clearly in our tradition, in the line of descent from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob, and from Jacob, who is also given the name Israel, to his twelve sons who become the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel. The complicated kinship structure also includes Abraham's first born, Ishmael, who also has twelve sons, who in turn become the ancestors of twelve Arabian tribes. And Isaac's first born, Esau, has five sons, and through them becomes the ancestor of other tribes, including the Edomites, and the Amalekites. You may recall that the Book of Esther includes a very prominent Amalekite by the name of Haman. So tribal identity is associated with the traditional idea of blood as a metaphor for kinship, but there is the connection formed through marriage, which is highlighted in the Book of Ruth, and the broader idea of a household. But the main point is that tribe is an extension of the idea of kinship, so if we are members of the tribe, we all related, all members of the same extended family.
So what, then, is a nation? The root meaning from the Latin has to do with birth, the same root as native, and nativity, and it is synonymous with breed, stock, kind, species, race of people, and… tribe. The traditional notion of a nation, then, is a group of people with shared ancestry, with a common ancestor, people related to one another through an extended form of kinship, sharing the same blood, part of the same family. So the word nation can refer to a tribe. Or it can refer to a collection of tribes, such as the twelve tribes of Israel, or the Achaeans of Greece who fought the Trojan War, or the Iroquois confederacy that formed in this region during the 17th and 18th centuries, not to mention the Mayans, Incans, and Aztecs of Mesoamerica. The point is that a nation is not defined by its government, but by its people. The same nation can change governments many times; for example, France has been a kingdom, a constitutional monarchy, a republic, an empire, and a dictatorship. The great scholar of Judaism, Jacob Neusner, has stated that, from the time of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 of the common era, and the final defeat of the Jewish rebellion in the year 135, we became a nation in exile, and remained so until the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
The words tribe and nation have different connotations, but quite a bit of common ground, along with the traditional use of the word race, used to refer to a race of people, or what we otherwise would refer to as an ethnic group. This is the sense in which Nazi ideology was based on racial theories that claimed superiority for what they termed the Aryan race, viewing Jews and Gypsies as inferior races and therefore the target of ethnic cleansing, and the Slavic race as lower than the Aryans but good enough to be their servants. But whether we speak of race in this sense of the word, or ethnic group, or nation or nationality, or tribe, what we are essentially referring to is a people. That's what we do when we say, am yisrael chai, the people of Israel live. And when we speak of a people, we mean something more than a population, more than numbers. This week's Torah portion comes from what is commonly known as the Book of Numbers, and last week's portion included a census of the 12 tribes, but the Hebrew name for the book is Bamidbar, which means, In the Desert, and it is in the desert that the Jewish nation is born. Because when we speak of a people, we mean a population that shares a sense of group identity, that feels a sense of connection, of kinship, that shares a common culture, a distinctive way of life, and a distinctive way of looking at the world.
But there are times when a people split up, divide into different groups, start to go their separate ways, and lose their shared identity. This is the problem that Moses faces towards the end of this week's Torah portion, as the Israelites prepare to take possession of the land of Canaan, with each tribe occupying its own designated region. The leaders of two of the tribes, Reuben and Gad, tell Moses that they want to settle on the east bank of the Jordan River, and not occupy the Promised Land. And Moses responds, "Shall your brothers go to war while you stay here?" It's a question some have raised in regards to the State of Israel today. And Moses goes on to say, "Why do you discourage the children of Israel from crossing over to the land which Adonai has given them?" The tribes of Reuben and Gad respond that they will send their men across the Jordan to support the other tribes, and will only return and settle down in the east bank after all the other tribes have taken possession of their lands. And this becomes an acceptable compromise.
Moses uses the fear of God to keep Reuben and Gad from splitting off from the other tribes, but I think it is worth asking, what was it that held the Israelite tribes together? After all, the tribes descended from the sons of Abraham, from Isaac and Ishmael, became estranged from one another, and became, on many occasions, enemies. The same is true of the tribes descended from the sons of Isaac, from Jacob and Esau. So why didn't the same thing happen to the tribes descended from the sons of Jacob?
We can point to the shared experience of being slaves in Egypt, of their subsequent liberation, and revelation at Sinai. That certainly ought to go a long way towards insuring a sense of solidarity. But what also was essential in binding the tribes of Israel together was the Torah itself, a sacred text that was given to all of them as a shared inheritance. It was understood as a message from Adonai that was addressed to every Israelite tribe. It gave them a set of laws, the first true system of codified law, that applied to every tribe, and unified them all under a single constitution. And it gave them the first true written history, a shared history of the Hebrew tribes, a relatively fixed history in the place of a set of myths and legends passed on by word of mouth, and constantly changing from generation to generation. And it was based on a system of writing, the aleph-bet, that made it possible for the tribes to communicate with one another more effectively than before, which kept them from drifting apart. The aleph-bet also made it possible for the tribes to keep records, and to organize themselves in increasingly more complex ways. And the aleph-bet was the basis of formal education, of schooling, of study, and of the ability to employ more abstract forms of thought than peoples who lacking in literacy.
The result was not by any means a perfect union. The Torah, and the Tanach tell the story of a struggle to maintain a collective identity. In the Book of Judges the tribes are a loose confederation, and some but not all of them come together every so often under the leadership of a particular chieftain. Saul, the first king of Israel, is not all that different from the judges who preceded him, and when he assembles an army, the tribes of Reuben and Gad do not participate. It is King David who is finally able to unite the Israelite tribes into a unified kingdom. And to establish a capital that is independent of any one tribe, he conquers the city of Jerusalem, a city that was outside of any tribal region. The founders of the American republic followed this example in creating the District of Columbia where the city of Washington could be situated, so that our capital would not be located in any one of the states. David's son, King Solomon, built the Temple in Jerusalem to strengthen the union of tribes, but after he died, the kingdom split in two, with the southern kingdom of Judah, composed of that largest of the tribes, together with the small tribe of Benjamin, along with members of the tribes of Levi, the priestly tribe that had no land assigned to them. The rest of the tribes formed the northern kingdom of Israel, which was eventually destroyed by the Assyrians, with the members of those tribes either assimilating, or joining the southern kingdom, or joining with newer settlers in the north to become the Samaritans. The tribe of Benjamin was eventually absorbed into the tribe of Judah, leading to the notion of the ten lost tribes of Israel, the subject of centuries of searching on the part of Christians as well as Jews. And not long after the discovery of the New World, some thought that the ten lost tribes had been found, thinking that they were the Native Americans.
Recently, there as been some evidence that remnants of some of the ten lost tribes did survive into the Roman era, but today we really are the tribe, that is, the tribe of Judah, which is why we call our religion Judaism, and call ourselves Jews, even those of us whose name indicates membership in the tribe of the Levites. But we are divided in others ways, between Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews, between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, between Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox Jews, and so on. We commonly use the metaphor of branches in talking about Judaism, that our own Reform Judaism is one of the branches of Judaism, and this metaphor resonates with the Tree of Life, which was said to have existed in the Garden of Eden, and which also serves as a metaphor for the Torah, for the sacred text that binds us together as one people.
In one rabbi's discussion of Parsha Matot, he notes that there is another word that is used in the Torah that like matot also means tribes: shevatim, which means branches. Matot, on the other hand, means sticks, and its appearance in this week's Torah portion suggests that the Israelite tribes have become less connected to one another than they previously had been. The Lubavitcher rebbe expresses a beautifully spiritual sentiment in suggesting, "Every stick yearns to return to its tree, yearns for the day that it will once again be a fresh, vital branch, united with its siblings and nourished by its progenitor." But, of course, we know that unless we go to great effort to preserve the severed limb, sticks that are cut off will tend to scatter, and grow further and further apart. And that is what happens to families, to tribes, to peoples as they separate. Unless they have something to hold them together. Something like our long tradition of literacy and learning.
Parsha Matot also includes an account of the Israelites taking revenge against the Midianites, in response to an earlier attempt by the Midianites to destroy the Israelites. The Midianites were also said to be the descendents of Abraham, and often at odds with the Israelite tribes, although Zipporah, the wife of Moses was a Midianite, and her father Jethro was a priest of Midian. The passage serves as a reminder of the realities of tribal life, of the conflicts, the violence, and the brutality. There is nothing noble about tribal savagery, and the Israelite tribes were not immune to it. And what this Torah portion relates are the realities of tribal warfare. But what the Torah also conveys is the fact that, just as the long journey of return from slavery in Egypt to settlement in the Promised Land was about to come to end, the Israelite tribes were just beginning a much longer and more difficult journey, from tribalism to civilization. The tribes of the children of Israel, our ancestors, were pioneers in that uncharted territory, as they forged a new way of life based on the rule of law, human rights, and ethical principles, and on education and learning based on alphabetic literacy.
Our Holy Scriptures tells the story of our difficult struggle to banish tribalism, and not by having some other, deeply flawed form of civilization imposed on us by others, not by the Egyptians, or Babylonians, or the Greeks or the Romans. When it's imposed from the outside, it is all to easy to revert to tribalism once that outside force is gone. Freud called it the return of the repressed, and we can see it happening all over the world today. No, what the Israelite tribes did was to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, find their own way to a civilized way of life. And in doing so, they insured the survival of the Jewish people as a nation in exile.
No one knows how many tribes have vanished over the course of human history, how many tribal languages and cultures have disappeared with out a trace, and continue to do so to this day. But as the people of the book, we have survived against all odds. Over the past two millennia, we have survived new forms of tribalism that came in the name of religious zealotry, and we survived the modern form of tribalism born of Nazi and fascist ideologies in the 20th century. And we continue to find ourselves struggling against the force of tribalism today. It is an external struggle, as current events make all too clear, but it is also an internal struggle, to maintain our collective identity, to continue to survive as the tribe, and as a civilization committed to higher ideals.
I can think of no better way to conclude than with the words of the prophet Isaiah (49:6): "It is too light a thing that you should be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the offspring of Israel; I will also give you to be a light unto the nations, that My salvation may be unto the ends of the earth."