After our father, Yaakov, blessed his twelve sons at the end of his life, it is written: “All these are the tribes of Israel – twelve” (Genesis 49:28). Regarding the Twelve Tribes of Israel, the Talmud teaches in the name of Abaya:
“It is a tradition that no tribe will ever be wiped out” (Baba Basra 115b).
According to the commentator, Rashbam, a source for this tradition cited by Abaya is found in the following Divine statement which alludes to the eternity of the twelve tribes that were founded by the twelve sons of Yaakov:
“For I, Hashem, have not changed, and you, the sons of Yaakov, have not ceased to be.” (Malachi 3:6)
In this letter, we shall begin to discuss some teachings which can help us to understand the unique significance of each tribe. These teachings can also help us to understand that the yearning for our reunion with the Lost Ten Tribes is rooted in the following realization:
Each of our tribes has a unique characteristic which helps us to fulfill our spiritual and universal mission as the people of the Torah.
Yaakov blessed his twelve sons, the founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Genesis, Chapter 49); moreover, Moshe blessed the Twelve Tribes of Israel before they entered the Promised Land (Deuteronomy, Chapter 33). A deep study of these blessings reveals that each tribe has a unique characteristic which it can use to further the Divine mission of the entire nation of Israel. Among these unique characteristics of our diverse tribes, we find special skills in areas such as leadership, Torah wisdom, commerce, agriculture, and military defense against enemies seeking Israel’s destruction. For example, the Tribe of Yehudah specialized in leadership, the Tribe of Levi specialized in the study and teaching of Torah, the Tribe of Yissachar specialized in certain areas of Torah scholarship, the Tribe of Zevulun specialized in commerce, the Tribe of Asher specialized in certain areas of agriculture, and the Tribe of Gad specialized in “warrior” skills which were used in defense of our nation.
Although Israel is one nation, each of our tribes is also a nation, and a source for this idea is found in the following Divine promise to Yaakov, our father:
“A nation and a community of nations will emerge from you” (Genesis 35:11).
“A community of nations” – Targum Onkelos, the ancient and revered Aramaic translation of the Torah, states: “A community of tribes will emerge from you.”
In his commentary on the above Divine promise, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that each tribe within Israel has a unique national characteristic. According to Rabbi Hirsch, the tribes of Israel – each with its own special characteristic – can serve as a universal model for all the diverse tribes of humankind. Rabbi Hirsch writes:
“Hence, this people should not present a one-sided image. As a model nation, it should reflect diverse national characteristics…In this manner it will become clear to all that the sanctification of human life in the Divine covenant of the Torah does not depend on a particular way of life or national characteristic. Rather, all of humankind, with all its diversity, is called upon to accept the unifying spirit of the God of Israel. From the diversity of human and national characteristics will emerge one united kingdom of God.”
According to Midrash Rabbah, the following verse indicates that each tribe had its own flag:
The Children of Israel shall encamp, each person by his flag according to the insignia of his ancestor’s house, at a distance surrounding the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp.” (Numbers 2:2)
“Each person by his flag” – The flag of each tribe had a distinguishing color and emblem representing the tribe. (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 2:7)
The Tent of Meeting – the Sanctuary – contained the Ark of the Covenant, and within the Ark of the Covenant were the Tablets of the Covenant. After the Sanctuary was built, the Twelve Tribes of Israel were commanded to encamp around the Sanctuary with their respective flags. Before the building of the Sanctuary, there is no mention of their encamping with flags.
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, a leading sage of the previous generation, raises the following question:
Why did the Twelve Tribes of Israel have to wait to encamp with their respective flags until “after” the Sanctuary was built?
He offers the following answer:
Until the Children of Israel had the unifying center of the Sanctuary, the differences between the tribes were a potential source of conflict. If the tribes would have encamped with their separate flags without a unifying spiritual center, there would have been a surge of “nationalistic” feeling within each tribe, with each tribe feeling superior to the other. The Sanctuary, however, provided a central focus to communal life and revealed that, whatever their differences, the tribes were united by their common service of Hashem. Once the Sanctuary was built, it was no longer dangerous to emphasize the unique nature of each tribe through their separate flags.
Rabbi Kamenetsky adds a related idea:
The diversity of the tribes has a positive role within the Divine plan for Israel, and we were reminded of this after the Exodus, when Hashem split the Sea of Reeds into twelve different paths – one for each tribe (Mechilata on Exodus 14:6). This positive role can only be fulfilled, however, when all the tribes are devoted to a common spiritual goal, and when there is mutual respect for the unique role of each tribe in the achievement of that goal. (Cited in the ArtScroll biography, “Reb Yaakov” by Yonason Rosenblum)
The Twelve Tribes of Israel were later reminded of their common spiritual goal when they made the joyous pilgrimage to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem for the Festivals of Passover, Shavuos, and Succos. Within the Holy of Holies of the Temple was the Ark of the Covenant, and within the Ark were the Tablets of the Covenant which we received at Mount Sinai. Within the Ark was also the Torah scroll transcribed by Moshe, and according to another view, this scroll was placed on a board protruding from the Ark (Baba Basra 14a-b).
The joyous pilgrimage to the
Temple in Jerusalem
therefore led to the renewal
of our collective bond with
the Torah – the Divine
Teaching. This renewal of
our shared commitment to the
Divine Teaching led to
unity; thus, the Jerusalem
Talmud explains that the
pilgrimages to the Temple
inspired all the people to
become spiritual chaverim
– friends (Chagigah
3:6). Through these
became a city where the
People of Israel were united
together, and the Talmud
following commentary of
Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi on a
phrase from the Book of
“The built-up Jerusalem is like a city that is united together” (Psalm 122:3) – a city that causes all Israel to become chaverim.” (Ibid)
As we have discussed in this series on the “soul” of Zion, the majority of our people are no longer aware of our unifying and spiritual goal as the people of the Torah. The loss of this awareness has also caused a loss of the awareness of the following tradition: There are “tribes” within our nation that are to be especially devoted to the study and teaching of Torah. These particular tribes can remind our nation of the “soul” of Zion – the inner spirit which reveals the higher purpose of our life in the Land of Zion. It is therefore fitting to conclude this letter with the following blessings:
May all our tribes renew the sacred bond with the Torah.
May there be mutual respect for the role of each tribe.
And may all our tribes be blessed with unifying shalom.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. With the help of Hashem, we shall discuss in the next letter the following teaching of Maimonides: The Tribe of Levi – a tribe devoted to the study of the Divine Teaching – can serve as a universal model for any human being who wishes to devote his or her life to this form of service to Hashem.
2. For information on the biography, “Reb Yaakov” by Yonason Rosenblum, visit: www.artscroll.com.