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Peace in Pieces
Maintaining the individuality of every tribe was the only way of maintaining the unity of the Jewish People.

Peace in Pieces

Based on Parasha U’Likcha by Rabbi Moshe Grylak

Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender


Why is it that one of the first things the Almighty did after taking the Jewish People out of Egypt was to divide them in to tribes? Why not break down barriers between people instead of erecting them? Doesn’t such divisiveness contain the seeds of war?

A deeper look at the issue reveals that the exact opposite is true. Maintaining the individuality of every tribe was the only way of maintaining the unity of the Jewish People.

Certainly at first glance this seems strange. This was a nation that had just escaped almost two hundred years of the very worst kind of human degradation. Their Egyptian enslavement had erased any trace of unique tribal identity. The enemy made no distinctions between various kinds of Jews – all were made to suffer equally. Now, at the long-awaited moment of redemption, instead of taking advantage of the feeling that “we’re all in this together”, instead of melding the masses into a single, integrated national unit, the Almighty instead reinstates the former tribal order. Every tribe is assigned its place and is encouraged to cultivate pride in their unique identity.

The Torah emphasizes the lines dividing each tribe apart by placing physical borders between them. Every tribe is told exactly where to settle around the Mishkan (tabernacle). Tribal pride is encouraged with individual tribe flags. There’s nothing like a flag to inspire patriotism. But the question remains: why didn’t the Torah use the redemption to inspire unity among the nation? Why did the Torah stride in direct contradiction to the path walked by other nations throughout history?

And if those issues weren’t curious enough, Maimonides states that in the future, when the complete and final redemption arrives with the coming of the mashiach (messiah) , when all the Jewish People are brought back to the Land of Israel as one, the splendor of the tribes will be reinstated (Maimonides, Hilchos Melachim).

Is there something wrong with this picture? Isn’t this approach rife with the potential for conflict, contention, brother-fighting-brother? Why not try to convince everybody that, deep down inside, we’re all really the same?

Such a simplistic approach sounds terrific in theory but never seems to work with real human beings. Despite the best of efforts to ignore reality, people are not the same. We are all different from one another. Every group of people is different from every other group. Those who claim to be “citizens of the world” in an effort to push national affiliation aside reel off a fine-looking slogan, but the words have no meaning. Every effort to erase ethnic distinctions in a melting pot of national unity is destined to failure.

Just as people are different from one another, so are their spiritual and physical needs. Each person’s approach to life and to himself is unique. Individual and national development can only succeed where it expresses the authentic personality that the individual or nation was created with.

The Torah was the book of instructions given by that very Creator. He knows better than anyone else how unique every individual and every nation is. Because of this, it would be impossible for His Torah to demand a homogenous lifestyle from every individual and every nation as one. Instead, in order to best help the Jewish nation develop their potential, Torah outlined the many different lifestyles appropriate for the many different personality types of the Jewish People.  (Commandments applying to other nations are outlined in other parts of the Torah as well.)

As long as every tribe appreciates that their unique lifestyle is only one part of the whole, the possibility for conflict is kept to a minimum. After all, the individual Jew knows that he wasn’t the one to decide that his lifestyle was kosher. He didn’t make up “his own truth” – the Torah did! And just as the Almighty gave His stamp of approval to that Jew’s unique lifestyle, so He did with the many other lifestyles of the other tribes in the Jewish nation. 

These premises help the individual Jew to remember that, as much as “his truth” makes sense for him, he has no right to impose it on the other tribes. Simultaneously, when the inevitable points of conflict do arise between the different tribes, the general legislative body of the entire Jewish People, the Sanhedrin, sits in Jerusalem to resolve conflicts and to guide the nation.

It is this individualistic approach that leads to true peace -- a peace based on the honest participation of all parties rather than a false and hopeless effort to blot all differences out. It is not in homogeny, but in respecting and appreciating differences that true social harmony lays.

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