To unite as a nation, despite many differences


In 1986, an Israeli fighter-plane was shot down over Lebanon; the pilot and navigator, safely ejected from the burning plane, found themselves trapped behind enemy lines. In one of the most daring missions of the war, an Israeli search and rescue team flew in under heavy fire, and with an Israeli commando suspended from a helicopter by a cable, literally plucked the pilot from the jaws of the approaching enemy only 800 yards away. His navigator, already surrounded by an enemy that was only 50 yards away, could not be rescued. 

Ask any Israeli air force pilot what his ultimate nightmare is, and he will tell you of Ron Arad, the navigator of that flight who watched his co-pilot whisked away to safety, while he was left behind. So many years later, Ron Arad is still missing.

This mission raises one of the classic questions in military operations: at what point is the individual expendable, for the sake of the many? Does saving the life of one Israeli airman justify risking the lives of many others?

In this week’s portion, Matos, the Torah describes how the Jewish people came together as one unit to wage war against their enemy Midyan. Each tribe sent its men forward to become one solid Israel defense force, over 3,000 years ago.

“Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh La’Zeh (All Israel are responsible one for another).”

So where did go wrong?

There is a message, hidden in this week’s portion, which may provide both a clue as to the problem and a possible solution.

When Moshe prepares to wage war on the nation of Midyan, in response to that nation’s attempt to destroy the Jewish people, he does not command the people to “rise as one” in order to defeat the common enemy. Instead, he tells the Jewish people, “Put forth men from amongst you for the army … a thousand from each Tribe.” (Bamidbar 31:3-4)

Why are we dividing Israel into separate tribes? Why isn’t there simply a command to the entire Jewish people to gather the “Israeli” army together? How could the Torah conclude the book of Bamidbar, dedicated to building a Nation that will be a light for the entire world, by fostering such a divisive, destructive force as tribalism?

In truth, there is something happening here that represents a fundamental change not just in the introduction of the individual identity of the tribes, but in the very way we perceive tribes.

• • •

In the book of Bamidbar we are introduced to the concept of Mateh. Until now, the word used in the Torah for tribes is Shevet. Only in the book of Numbers do we first see the tribe as a Mateh. In fact the concept of a tribe as a Mateh is not used in the Torah outside the book of Bamidbar — and in Bamidbar, the word Mateh appears nearly 100 times).

Rav Matis Weinberg points out that both these words are a form of stick. A Shevet is a club, which was actually used to great effect by the Shotrim (possibly the equivalent of Jewish policemen) and their Egyptian taskmasters, in effectively controlling their slaves.

The Mateh, on the other hand is something we are quite familiar with as the staff used by Aaron and Moshe. 

And perhaps that is the point. Maybe the Jewish people (and through them the world) needed to change their perception from whatever Shevet represents, and discover the beauty and the power of the Mateh.

A Shevet is, in the end, a weapon of war. It is a club, used for violence, to control and dominate, as well as to fend off would be attackers. (Indeed the English word for Shevet, club, is itself a group which is designed to exclude others, such as a frequent flyers club which creates a culture of those that are “in,” and those that are not.)

A Mateh on the other hand, is a staff, which is a stick used for support, representing leadership and direction. (Here too, the English word for Mateh is also a group of people, such as the staff of a camp. In this case, however, it is not an exclusive group, but rather one that comes to support the larger whole. And, of course, this is exactly the function of the stick we call a staff or a Mateh — it is a stick one leans on for support.)

Perhaps this distinction is the entire point. There is a movement in the world that seeks to do away with the value of the individual identity.

Communism suggested that there are no individuals, there is only the state. John Lennon in his “Imagine,” suggests how wonderful it might be if there were no peoples, no religions, no borders, and no differences, “above us, only sky.” But Judaism begs to differ, because within the context of the nation, it is critical that there always be a place for the individual.

• • •

Building a nation does not exclude the possibility of the tribe; rather, the book of Bamidbar is dedicated to creating a place for each tribe (and alongside that, each individual) within the nation.

The Jewish notion of a tribe as a Mateh, as opposed to a Shevet, teaches us to value the power and majesty of becoming one, with one dream and one purpose as a Nation, while never losing sight of the beauty and value of each and every individual.

All of which brings us back to the challenges we face today.

We have allowed ourselves to become our own islands of theology and principle, as well as geography and beliefs. We live in our little island communities, be they our homes, our synagogues, or even our Jewish organizations, defined as religious or secular, Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, Right-wing or Left-wing, Jewish or Arab. We have become cut off from one another, islands of ideals and

We are in the midst of the most painful period in the Jewish calendar, the three weeks of mourning, a time when we all need to do some serious thinking.

Two thousand years ago, Josephus describes why it took three weeks from the time the Romans broke through the walls on the seventeenth day of Tammuz until they burned the Temple on the ninth day of Av in August of the year 70 CE.

It only takes ten minutes to walk from the Old City walls to the Temple Mount, but it took the Romans three weeks, because during this month they pillaged, raped, looted and butchered their way through the Jewish city of Jerusalem. In less than a month, they murdered over 100,000 Jews, and this before there were machine guns and mortars, carbon monoxide vans and gas chambers; they did it with their hands.

And here we are, 2,000 years later, still struggling with the intolerance and lack of understanding that, according to the Talmud, caused it all.

Today, just like 2,000 years ago, we have only ourselves to blame, because if this is happening, then all of us, and each one of us, have a lot of work to do.