This week the Torah starts with a command to the Heads of the Tribes. This is unusual because normally it would either be a command to the Israelites in general or to Moses specifically. And it relates to fathers and husbands having the right to cancel vows either as a husband or a father on the grounds that one cannot take vows that end up committing other people.
The context here is the role and function of tribes in Ancient Israel. Spoils from war were shared amongst the tribes. Territory was allocated according to tribes. So, if one took a vow, say, to divest oneself of tribal property, or to commit certain resources, it could affect the whole, not just the individual. This law clearly reinforces the authority and significance of tribes. Of a patriarchal society.
For all the safeguards and attempts to strengthen tribal authority in the Torah, subsequently and throughout the history of the two kingdoms, the tribes argued, split and fought and killed each other. Finally, they were exiled, they disappeared as effective units and were merged into what we now call the Jews. What remains is the symbol of priesthood. Tribes instead of helping cohesion ended up as a divisive force. Were they simply a development out of Jacob’s fractious sons? A way of transitioning from one stage of national development to another? Or a model to be resurrected when a nation grows to too big?
Wherever Jews live, they disagree and fight over politics, wealth, status and attitudes towards others. Thank goodness, we no longer kill each other. We have nothing like the internecine conflicts between Sunni and Shia. But we are a complex, stiff necked people and we seem to thrive on disagreement and conflict. Once it could be said the only thing we agreed about was survival and an existential threat. But no longer. Now there are Jews who even want to dismantle and weaken Israel.
Yet the fact is that we have in a way resurrected tribes. Whether they are secular, political, Haredi, Hassidic or Reform we have different ways of life, belief and commitment all falling under the general rubric of Jew. Passion varies, involvement varies. We choose which tribe we belong to and how much we care.