The Tribe Has Spoken

Parashat Matot-Masei | August 6, 2016

One of my favorite TV shows is Survivor. Yes, the reality show where people are marooned in the wilderness or a desert island, struggle to survive, and vote each other off the show. The show began in the summer of 2000, 16 years ago, and yes, 32 seasons later, it’s still on the air. From physical challenges, encounters with nature, and memorable contestants the show has had many famous moments. But the most iconic moment, and the most iconic phrase occurs at the end of each episode when Jeff Probst, the host of the show, turns to a contestant who has just been eliminated, extinguishes their torch and says, “the tribe has spoken.”

Oftentimes, when we hear the word “tribe,” we think of this setting. Not necessarily the reality-TV show, but the idea of a tribe of people surviving together on an island. We think primitive, we think isolated. But, we also think Jewish. We know that in the times of the Bible, our people were categorized in 12 tribes, each representing the descendants of Jacob’s children. The Israelites marched through the wilderness in an order determined by their tribe, they were allotted land in the Promised Land by their tribe, and after the Northern Kingdom was destroyed, we talk about the 10 lost tribes of Israel. After the Babylonian exile, the tribal system basically vanished as everyone became associated with the surviving tribe of Judah – hence our name Yehudim, Jews.

In recent years though, the term tribe has become popular again, maybe even cool. Communities have named their Young Adult groups, the Tribe, and the phrase “Member of the Tribe,” or MOT if you’re texting or typing online, has come to represent a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek way of referring to someone as Jewish. And it also is the name for the first half of our double parsha this morning, Matot – Tribes.

The parsha beings in a way similar to many others with Moses speaking to the Israelites. But this time, it’s not directly to them. Instead, “Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes saying: this is what the Lord has commanded.” (Num 30:2) He speaks to the heads of the tribes. It’s unusual for them to be addressed this way instead of as nation as a whole. We can ask many questions about why this is, for the moment what strikes me is the focus that is placed on tribes. As we mentioned, it was a defining characteristic of the Israelites of biblical times, seemingly playing a factor in everything they did.

But it also begs us to ask the question, is Judaism still a tribe? Do we still look at ourselves in the same way? The word itself is defined as “a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect.” There are many ways in which we can see this to be true. Judaism certainly consists of families and communities linked by social, economic, religious and cultural means. For many of us, this is what is so unique and special about Judaism. The ways in which all of us are linked together within our own Jewish community as well as with Jewish communities around the world. For those who are just returning from Israel, the idea that you can travel 6,000 miles and never feel more at home, is explicitly because of these tribal aspects that unify us. We are a people that sticks together, we are a people that supports and protects each other, we are a people that are united.

However, another way of looking at this same concept might be that as we are so united amongst ourselves, we can be isolated from the rest of the world. Tribes are primitive, they are uncivilized, they aren’t around anymore. When we do hear the word tribe, we oftentimes think “insular,” focused only within. But idea goes against so much of the Judaism that we know. So much of who we are as Jews encourages us look at the greater world around and helps inform our vision of what we see.

The prophet Isaiah tells us we should be an Or Lagoyim, a light unto the nations. We can’t exactly shine our light, if it’s only on in a closed room. For that light to shine, there must be a focus outwards. Many of our mitzvot do have their focus squarely place outwards on others. Chesed, lovingkindness, Tzelem Elohim, the idea that all people are created in God’s image, Lo Taamod Al Dam Re’echa, don’t stand idly by the suffering of others, Ger Lo Toneh, you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you too were strangers in Egypt. All of these mitzvot, commandments that we view as central to Jewish identity, portray a Judaism that is focused outward, on the world around us.

So which is it? Is Judaism a tribe, that is focused on the particular, or is it a religion that looks outward, towards the universal? This debate, this anxiety of identities between the universal and the particular has been going on for centuries, and in many ways is the fundamental question in any number of Jewish discussion topics. Perhaps it is no better summarized than in the famous quote from Pirkei Avot, the Teachings of our Ancestors.

הלל אומר: אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי? וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי? וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתַי?

Hillel the Elder taught: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what good am I? And if not now when?

If we are not focused on ourselves, if we do not take care of our own community, who else will? But if this is all we care about and all we do, what is our purpose?

We see this tension in any number of ways. Do I give money to a specifically Jewish cause, or to a global cause? Do I concern myself solely with attacks against Jews, or do I stand up against attacks towards all religions? When an organization that stands for a cause I believe in, but doesn’t support Israel, do I continue to support that organization? All of these questions are debated seemingly every day.

And do these debates have answers? Is there a clear side that wins this argument? In my mind, there is, and that is that deeply Jewish and satisfying answer… both. We are both universal and particular, and it is because we do incorporate both, that Jewish identity, heritage, and practice are so rewarding. The point of Hillel’s famous quote from Pirkei Avot is not to make us choose one side or the other, but to exist between the two – to find ways of harmonizing these differing viewpoints of our Jewish identity, because neither can exist in a vacuum.

Over these next 93 days leading up to the election, we’ll undoubtedly read many articles and talk to many people who are convinced all Jews should stand for a certain issue or candidate. People will say that I support this cause as an expression of my Judaism. And while that certainly can be a fair and legitimate expression of Judaism, it cannot be one’s only expression of Judaism. There needs to be something behind it.

In my own experience, I have not been shy about advocating for an all-inclusive Human Rights Ordinance in Jacksonville, that will protect people of all races and orientations from discrimination. But when I do, I always do so based on the foundational texts and practices of our tradition. I do this because the texts guide me to these values. I look at the particular, the words of the Bible and the Talmud that were given to us as the chosen people, so that I can take part in the universal and help impact the community around me.

It’s vital that we take care of ourselves by looking inwards, so that we can continue looking outwards. Just as we can’t be a light unto the nations in a closed room, we can’t be a light unto the nations if our bulb goes out. We look at ourselves, we take care of our own, we focus on the particular, so that there will always be Jews to look at the universal. One cannot exist without the other. Being particular without being universal is no different than being that tribe on a desert island. But being universal without being particular is no different than being a member of a political party. It is because we have been able to incorporate both of these missions into our identity, that Judaism has survived for 3,000 years as a religion, as a culture, as a race, as a heritage, and as a nation.

Our great modern theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote that, “A religious man, is a person who holds God and man in thought at one time, at all times.” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity) We must be able to realize our commitments to God, but also to the people around us.

As a Jewish community, we know there are many times when we feel like we are alone on that island. That we are the only people who care enough, and are capable enough of taking care of ourself, of our tribe. But we also know that there is a world beyond that island. A world that we live in that needs us just as much as we need it. To paraphrase the words of Hillel, “If we are not for ourselves, who will be for us? But if we are only for ourselves, what good are we?”

May we always be able to balance these two world views in our commitments and our values, so that when our presence is felt as a light for the nations, as a force for good in the world, we can all say, “the Tribe has spoken.”