BaMidbar Rabbah II:3
With great love did the Holy One, blessed be the One, love them [the tribes] for The One organized them under banners/flags like the ministering angels, so that they might be easily distinguished. How do we know that this was a sign of love? Because Solomon says: "He has brought me to the house of wine, and his banner over me is love." (Song of Songs 2:4).
Shemot 1:1 (today’s parasha, the first chapter of the Book of Exodus):
“And these are the names of the Children of Israel who were coming to Egypt; with Jacob each man and his household came. Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah . . . Gad, and Asher.”
We held a technologically challenging study group this month. As several could not attend in person due to illness or other reasons, the group included participants on Skype and conference call. We worked initially with the last part of Louis Ginzberg’s translation of Midrash Rabbah relating to tribal symbols in the desert, then concluded with Moshe’s blessings for the tribes in Deuteronomy.
P 236: “the purple color of the cloud of glory was reflected in the waters of the rivers”
The midrash is full of images of beauty describing the encampment of the Israelites in the desert. Multiple colors, dominated by the purple of the Cloud, rivers, and garments. Color – the antithesis of the tza’a’rat described as the pale white skin manifestation of the spiritual sin of slander, as afflicted Miriam. This passage also contains extensive descriptions of the sacred geometry of the encampment, with the Mishkan in the center, encircled by the Levites in the 4 directions, they in turn encircled by the 12 tribal encampments in the 4 directions, they in turn encircled by their cattle and other animals, with purple rivers separating the humans from the animals, and each directional encampment from the other. Also, 4 rivers dividing each directional division of tribes, like the 4 rivers that flowed from the 1 out of Eden in Genesis, with wooden boards used to bridge the rivers and connect the tribes. The unity in the diversity, the echad in the all. And a focus on the miracle of their garments, that grew with them like a skin, never soiled, always new, for the 40 years of journeying in the desert. Fascinating. The importance of clothing to the tribe, and to the individual.
p.237: “ . . . each individual tribe had its own special flag and symbols . . . “
The symbols described on the flags speak to the character of each tribe, as in Asher’s symbol of the olive tree, representing all the olive trees and olive oil on the territory of Asher. But wait! This is in the desert during the Exodus, and Asher’s olive trees are at least 40 years away. But our ancestors lived in times of prophecy, and proximity to the Divine, where past is future, and vice versa. So that Jacob’s blessings of his sons, and Moses later blessings of the tribes that came from those forefathers, speak to their future but also reflect their intrinsic natures and past actions. This is a repeated theme of our tradition, as in the name of YHVH – that was, is, and will be all at the same time - flowing and moving through every aspect of creation.
From what we know of the tribes, it would seem there were leaders and followers, tribes who were the haves and those that were the have-nots. So were these characteristics of the tribes true of all tribal members? What is the relationship between the destiny within the tribe vs our usual Western concept of the “freedom” of individual free will? It could be that having a tribal destiny or purpose brings with it a different form of freedom – the freedom to get IN rather than get out. As it is in some African tribes, where the spiritually divined purpose of a newborn baby is supported by the entire tribe, so that the infant can grow and fulfill his/her destiny with the encouragement and guidance of all tribal members.
We found ourselves asking how we might work with this issue of tribal character and purpose in Passover Village this year, or even from now until PV. One suggestion: meditate, pray, contemplate the tribes, feel which one calls to you, wants to teach you its lessons. Another suggestion: let us use all 5 senses to fully experience these archetypal patterns of our ancestors. Another suggestion: pick tribal flags out of a hat and take on the lessons of that tribe, as an actor takes a part. Whatever we choose to do, it is clear that these 12 tribal archetypes, or 13 depending how you count them, are all present in each one of us, and whichever route we choose to explore, the teachings will be there.
Deuteronomy 33:2: “From his right hand He presented the fiery Torah to them . . . “
So says the English translation of one of the verses leading up to Moses’ blessing of the tribes near the end of his life. But looking at the Hebrew, one does not find the word for fire or the word for Torah. There is a single word - Esh’daht - Aleph-Shin-Dalet–Taf. The commentaries tell us the rabbis do not know what this means. What!? All of our sages throughout history, and nobody knows what this means! We humbly seek some meaning in the letters. This is an Alef-Taf word, like Et” the marker of the direct object of a sentence, or “Emet” which means truth. These words contain everything that lies between the Alef, the first letter of the Aleph-Bet, and Taf, the last letter of the Aleph-Bet. So in other words, these words contain everything. And what is between them in this word is Shin-Dalet, Shad, which has the meaning of hill, or breast, or sufficiency, as in El Shaddai, the God of Sufficiency. So our translation could be that from His Right hand, the hand of Hesed, lovingkindness, He gave them everything, with sufficiency and nourishment in between. Another way to look at the word Esh’daht. It begins with the word Alef-Shin, or Aish, which means fire. This must be the source of our translation. We know the element of Fire as one of the 3 Mother letters, corresponding to the Sefira of Binah, understanding, which gave birth to all of subsequent Creation. But what of Dalet-Taf, Dat? Shorthand for Da’at, Knowledge, the pseudo-Sefirah which follows Binah in the Tree of Life? Isn’t Hebrew fun?
Deuteronomy 6-24: “ . . . Reuven . . . Judah . . . Levi . . . etc ”
The blessings of each of the tribes by Moses serve as bookends to those Jacob gave directly to his sons centuries earlier, the personal character of those sons now having matured into the character of an entire tribe. Thus, while Jacob highlighted Reuven’s impetuous nature that got him into lots of trouble and lost him his birthright, Moses prays that his enemies may not wipe him out, and that he should always be counted among his people. Jacob’s blessing that Judah will be the warrior, king, leader of the people is echoed by Moses, emphasizing this tribe’s future role as interlocutor for the people with HaShem. The priestly tribe of Levi is described as being so focused on their spiritual duties as to be disconnected from parents, brothers, and children. Are these the necessary boundaries and level of dedication needed for the priests to guide the entire people in its spiritual development, or, on the shadow side, are these the potential seeds of a destructive zealotry? Joseph will bring bounty to the people, as he provided food during famine in Egypt. Gad and Dan are acknowledged as lions, in addition to Judah, the warrior tribes. And Asher will be awash in oil.
Deuteronomy 33:26: “There is none like God, Jeshurun!”
Who is Jeshurun? This is one of many names used to describe the Children of Israel, including B’nai Yisrael, House of Jacob, etc., each likely emphasizing a particular attribute of the entire people. So Jeshurun comes from the root Yashar, meaning straight, perhaps indicating the people that follow the straight path of direct connection to HaShem inspired and characterized by the revelation at Sinai, the giving of the Torah, the Mishkan, the Tribes, the flags, and the purple rivers.
Post-script: There are other mentions of the tribes, their actions, and characters in other parts of Tanach that we have not yet studied. For instance, in her song of glory (Judges, Chapter 5), Devorah sings praises of the tribes that fought with her in the defeat of Sisera, while castigating those tribes who did not come to help her when she called. There are mentions of the tribes in Psalms, Chronicles, and no doubt many others. Further descriptions are found in the books of Kabbalah, such as Sefer Yetzirah, where the tribes are associated with the months of the year and the constellations of the Zodiak. We will continue to mine our source materials for more information and more understandings of our tribal ancestors, and how they live through us even to this day.
Next Gathering: Saturday, February 2
Location: To be determined