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Matot | Tribes and Tribalism

Rav Yaakov Beasley





Dedicated in memory of Rabbi Aaron M. Wise, whose yarzheit is on 21 Tammuz — The Etshalom and Wise families.




Dedicated in loving memory of Fred Stone, Ya'acov ben Yitzhak, beloved father and grandfather, whose yahrzeit is on 25 Tammuz -  Ellen, Stanley, Jacob, Zack, Ezra, Yoni, Eliana and Gabi Stone.







Sefer Bamidbar concludes with two parashiyyot which are normally read together: Matot and Masei.[1]  Parashat Matot opens with the laws of vows (nedarim) and their annulment, and then describes the war of vengeance against Midyan and the halakhot that arise from it.  Finally, the tribes of Reuven and Gad present Moshe with an unexpected request – the right to settle on the eastern side of the Yarden.  Only after much reproach and negotiation is a satisfactory solution reached.  Next week, we will read Parashat Masei, which begins by listing all the stops of the Jewish people's journey in the desert, outlines the rules governing the division and inheritance of the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael), and concludes with a prohibition for heiresses to marry out of their tribe. 




Our parasha begins simply, almost formulaically (30:2): "Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes (roshei ha-matot) of the Israelites, saying: 'This is the matter that God commanded…"  The Rashbam immediately asks where we find a parasha in the Torah like Matot, which begins with a speech by Moshe to the tribal princes, without God addressing him first.  He answers that God has previously commanded "These things you shall do for God on your festivals, besides your vows" (29:39).  It is this issue that Moshe now refers to when addressing the judges, as the beginning of this parasha is tied to the previous one.  We can find variations on this answer, which finds a connection between the laws of vows and the previous verses, in the commentaries of the Ramban, the Seforno, and the Ba'al Ha-turim. 




Other commentators attempt to explain the sudden appearance of the tribal princes when discussing the laws of vows, but nowhere else.  The Ramban suggests that this section is not meant for the people, but for the courts.  Were the Jewish people to know that fathers and husbands have the right to cancel vows, they would not treat nedarim with the proper gravity and respect.[2]  Given the esoteric nature of these laws, they are told only to the worthiest people. 




The Ibn Ezra provides a different explanation.  Applying the principle that "There is no set chronological order in the Torah" (Pesachim 6b), he suggests that the section on vows is actually said after the war with Midyan, even thought the Torah writes it beforehand.  After the war, we read that the tribes of Reuven and Gad approach Moshe, Elazar and the princes with the request to be permitted to dwell in Transjordan, and not Eretz Yisrael proper.  In return, they vow to serve as the front-line soldiers in the conquest of the Land of Israel.  After an agreement is reached, we read that (32:28) "Moshe commanded Elazar the Kohen, Yehoshua bin Nun, and the patriarchal heads of the Israelite tribes concerning them" to make sure that the tribes of Reuven and Gad fulfill their vow.  These "heads of the tribes" are the ones mentioned at the beginning of the parasha.[3] 




The Abarbanel argues that the sections are in chronological order.  Why, then, do the tribal princes suddenly appear here?  In the preceding parasha, Pinechas, Moshe receives word that he is about to die (27:12).  Upon hearing this, Moshe hastens to teach the tribal princes the laws of how to absolve vows.  Until this point, Moshe has been the sole expert, but from now on, the leaders will have to assume this role. 








Irrespective of how we explain the appearance of the tribal leaders at the beginning of our parasha, one point is clear – never before has the Torah directed itself towards them.  Until this point, the whole enterprise of Sefer Bamidbar has been forging a unified nation, camped around the Mishkan, its moral center.  The political leadership has been Moshe and 70 advisors, without mention of their tribal affiliations.  Until now, the only mentions of the tribes as separate entities have appeared in negative connotations - the episode of the spies and Korach's rebellion (with the aftermath of the test of the staffs).  The army is integrated and fights without tribal identification.  Suddenly, as the Torah describes the retaliation against Midyan, it presents us with an entirely new military structure:  "One thousand from a tribe, one thousand from a tribe, from every tribe of Israel, you are to send to war" (31:4).[4]  The dangers of this new tribalism appear immediately after the war with Midyan.  Gad and Reuven prefer to stay on the eastern side of the Yarden, and Moshe immediately suspects them of abandonment (32:6,14):




"Are your brothers then to go to war, while you stay here?!…  Now you come along, in your father's place – a brood of sinful men! - to add more to the flaming anger of God against Israel!"




This sudden focus on tribal identity is not limited to this week's parasha.  Next week's parasha, Masei, presents us with the ultimate in regressive tribal identity – previously unheard-of restraints on marriage outside of the tribe, as instituted in response to the grievances of the Gilad family:




"God has commanded you to give our brother Tzelofchad's inheritance to his daughters.  But, if they marry a member of another tribe, then their inheritance will be subtracted from our fathers' inheritance, and it will be added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry!"




…Moshe gave the Israelites instructions from God, saying, "The tribe of the sons of Yosef is absolutely right!  This is what God has commanded the daughters of Tzelofchad, saying: 'They may marry anyone they please, so long as they marry within their father's tribe…  And every daughter who inherits property among the tribes of Israel shall marry a member of her father's tribe…  And inheritance will not be transferred from one tribe to another tribe.'"  (vv. 2-3, 5-6, 8, 9)








The fissures in the national fabric that appear in our parasha do not delay in erupting.  The same tribes that request from Moshe the right to dwell in Transjordan find themselves suspected of outright secession even before Yehoshua dies, after building a giant altar on the east bank.  The tribes that settle in Eretz Yisrael prepare to go to war against the eastern tribes: "The Israelites heard about it, and the entire Israelite congregation gathered in Shilo to go up to war against them" (Yehoshua 22:12).




The Gilad family, which triggers the regulations against inter-tribal marriage, finds that the social ramifications of their actions ultimately come back to haunt them:




Yiftach of Gilad was a powerful man, the son of a prostitute, and Gilad fathered Yiftach.  The wife of Gilad gave birth to sons.  When they grew up, they evicted Yiftach, saying, "You shall not inherit from our father…" (Shoftim 11:1-2)




It became the tradition in Israel that in order to avoid changes of inheritance from tribe to tribe, a woman from one tribe would not marry a man from another.  If a woman would fall in love with a member of another tribe, she would be sent out without property, and they would call her "a whore, lover of a man from another tribe."  This is what happened to Yiftach's mother. (Radak, ad loc)




The entire Sefer Shoftim describes the progressive dissolution of national identity and the emergence of tribal affiliations instead.  Its first chapter describe how some tribes work together to conquer land, but others, left to fend for themselves, are unable to find themselves a home.  Devora, in her song of triumph (Chapter 5), criticizes those tribes who could not be roused to the assistance of their brothers.  Gidon barely manages to avoid civil war between his tribe of Menasheh and the stronger tribe of Efrayim (8:1-3).  Yiftach does not even try, and the resulting casualties number 42,000 (12:1-6).  By the end of the book (Chapters 19-21), a civil war erupts between Binyamin and the others because of the episode of the Concubine at Giva, killing hundreds of thousands.  Apparently, only a strong monarchy and national government is capable of putting an end to this internal fighting.








How are we to appreciate our parasha's heavy emphasis on tribal identity, given the knowledge that we have of its future consequences?  We first note that the term used for "tribe" in Bamidbar, "matteh," appears 91 times throughout the book, starting at its very beginning: "Together with you there should be one man per tribe (matteh)" (1:4).  Until now, the word for "tribe" has been shevet.  The basic meaning of the word "shevet" is scepter, and it "eventually developed in meaning from 'the scepter of authority'" to signify "a group of people under the command of 'one who holds the scepter' (Amos 1:5, 8)."[5]  Thus, the term "shevet" connotes power and authority.  However, the word "matteh," staff, is essentially a support (from the Hebrew root n-t-h).  In the context of a describing a group, it connotes mutual aid and sustenance.[6]  Throughout Sefer Bamidbar, whenever the Jewish people work in conjunction with each other, the word matteh is used.   The purpose of the book, from the lengthy depiction of the desert encampment at its beginning, to the detailed description of the precise division of the land at its end, is to create the proper balance (and even tension) between the individual and the community within the nation.  The Jewish people are never to let a sense of nationalism erase their essences as unique, named individuals.  These distinctions, however, are not to override their common nationhood.[7]  The tribes encamp under their flags — but facing inwards, towards the Divine cloud that hovers over the Mishkan, which overcomes their individual dissimilarities and imbues them with a common purpose.  The full expression of the proper release of this tension comes later, when the Jewish people choose to revoke the restrictions that develop from our parasha:




There were no happier days for Israel than Yom Kippur and the Fifteenth of Av (Tu be-Av).  (Mishna, Ta'anit 4:8)




What was so special about the latter?  It was the day that the tribes were allowed to intermarry freely.  (Talmud, ibid, 30b)



[1] Due to the vagaries of the Jewish calendar, this year is only the second time in 24 years that the two are not combined in the annual reading cycle.

[2] It must be noted that the power of a court to absolve vows is not mentioned anywhere in the Written Torah.  The Rabbis (Chagiga 10a) derive it from the words "'He must not break his word' (30:3) – HE must not, but others (a qualified court) may."  The Mishna (ibid, 1:7) states that the laws of absolving vows are "floating in the air" – it is almost impossible to identify their Scriptural source.

[3] Indeed, these are the only two instances of the term "roshei ha-mattot" in the entire Torah.

[4] In fact, the Midrash (Sifrei 157) suggests that even Levi, heretofore excluded from the censuses and military adventures, had to participate.  

[5] Entry from The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Vol. 4, p. 1388.

[6] Ibid, p. 573; see Hirsch, 18:2, where he suggests that the difference between the two terms is that of interdependence and independence.

[7] See Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik's "Community," Tradition (Spring 1978), for a full philosophical treatment of this dialectic.

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