By Rabbi Alex Hecht
Avreich at the YU Torah MiTzion Beit Midrash Zichron Dov,
and rabbinic assistant at the Clanton Park Synagogue.
In the Jewish community, achdut (unity) is generally viewed as a positive value. Differences in custom or ideology between different groups within Klal Yisrael are often overemphasized, which can cause us to lose sight of our mostly common values and goals as ovdei Hashem. In Parshat Bamidbar, however, Bnei Yisrael is commanded precisely to separate themselves by family: “The children of Israel shall encamp each man by his division with the flag staffs of their fathers’ house; some distance from the Tent of Meeting they shall encamp” (Bamidbar 2:2, translation from chabad.org).
Why was the benefit of separating Bnei Yisrael and distinguishing themselves based on lineage?
A midrash suggests that the purpose of dividing the tribes and placing them in designated locations was to prevent strife. Moshe was concerned that if, for example, he told Yehudah to camp to the east of the Mishkan, they would insist on camping to the south. Therefore, Hashem told Moshe that he need not be concerned, since each of Yaakov’s sons was told exactly where they would be placed, based on the role Hashem desired them to fulfill for the entire nation. Thus, the designations served as a source of clarity. (Vayikra Rabbah 2:8)
Despite the value of each tribe retaining a degree of distinctiveness, we still see concerns when tribes were too distinct. For example, when the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and a portion of Menashe desired to dwell apart from the rest of the nation, Moshe was wary about fulfilling their request until he knew that they intended to participate in the conquest of Eretz Yisrael. (Bamidbar 32)
Furthermore, distinctiveness has the potential to result in strife and collective blame. When members of the tribe of Binyamin committed the terrible crime in the incident of the Pilegesh b’Givah, the rest of the nation ceased to marry with them entirely. The Talmud (Ta’anit 30b) records that there were no days of joy that compared to Tu b’Av, when the rest of the nation lifted this ban and allowed intertribal marriage with Binyamin.
What is the proper balance between individuality and unity?
Clearly, there is a value in everyone having their own uniqueness and distinct role. Furthermore, we have an obligation to utilize our own talents to serve Hashem in our own way. However, we nevertheless all share the same ultimate mission. When we lose sight of that vision, distinctiveness is transformed into disunity.
This is precisely why Hashem reassured Moshe, based on Yaakov’s instructions to his sons, that some degree of separation is essential to ensure that each individual group, and person, can contribute to the collective success of the entire Jewish people.
This provides an important lesson for approaching unity in our time. Ideal achdutmay not mean that we should all join the same shul, wear the same clothing, or learn the exact same books. It is important that distinctiveness be maintained. However, it must be for the purpose of reaching the ultimate mission of Klal Yisrael of serving Hashem and following His Torah.
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