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Tribes of Israel: Branches of One Tree or Rods of „Divine Fury”?

Thoughts on Parashat Matot-Massei

Menachem Mirski

The opening words of this week’s Torah portion may not seem like an extraordinary statement at first sight:

“Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is what the [Eternal] has commanded…” (Numbers 30:2.)

Next we find an explanation of the laws regarding making vows, after which we read about a military expedition aimed at taking revenge against the Midianites. Moses is angry at the commanders of the Israelite army for not being ruthless enough in their dealings with the enemy. As a result he instructs them how they should have dealt with that enemy.

In today’s reflection I’d like to focus on this problem, but not so much from a historical perspective, but rather from a somewhat more linguistic standpoint. It turns out that the Torah uses two different words to describe the “tribes of Israel”. One of them is shevet (plural: shevatim), whereas the second one is mate (plural matot). And while both shevet and mate mean “branch”, both can also mean “stick” or “rod”. This duality reflects a deeper meaning of these two names: in some cases the Torah refers to us as a “branch”, thus emphasizing the necessity to be flexible and pliant in our life. But in other contexts the Torah uses the word “rods” to describe the same concept, thus emphasizing the need to exhibit firmness and determination as we carry out our mission of being the “holy people” and a “light for the nations”. Both of these terms can be found for example in a verse from the Book of Isaiah, in which it is indeed God Himself who through the mouth of the prophet uses  both of these terms to describe the King of Assyria,

“Ha! Assyria, rod (shevet) of My anger, in whose hand, as a staff (mate), is My fury!” (Isaiah 10:5),whom He appoints to pass a just judgment on the disobedient people of Israel.

Thus this ambiguity implies a two-fold understanding of the concept of a “tribe”, just as there is a dual understanding of the Hebrew term “Isra-El”, which means both “wrestling with God” (the literal meaning) as well as  “the chosen people”. The ambiguity of the expression “Isra-El” corresponds to the two forms of our relationship with God – we alternately serve Him and engage in disputes with Him, whereas the ambiguity of the terms shevet and mate sheds some light on the character of our relationship with members of other nations and religions, towards whom, depending on the circumstances, we should at times display a conciliatory and pliant attitude, whereas on other occasions be firm and unyielding.

True wisdom lies in the ability to distinguish between these two types of situations and in being able to recognize when we should be conciliatory and lenient towards others, just like a branch bending under the pressure of the wind, and when on the other hand we should act in a firm and uncompromising way, like a rod or a stick, not yielding to anyone nor to anything. In principle there is nothing wrong with showing others humility and modesty, as long as the other side is also displaying a friendly attitude towards us. A problem arises when that other side – a community of people or an individual person – deliberately takes advantage of our conciliatory approach or simply starts to exploit it. All this encompasses a certain theory of negotiations as well as answering the question whether we should display a “hard” or perhaps “soft” approach in such negotiations. In order to decide which of these two options to employ, we must pay close attention to the behavior and the motives of the people with whom we happen to be engaged in a conflict. The solution which I’d like to propose here is quite simple and it suggests the following stance: as long as we perceive the reactions and actions of others as a sign of their peaceful intentions – even if these actions might not always be beneficial for us in the short term, but their aim is for example achieving a certain common good or another, deeper objective), in such cases we should exhibit a friendly approach towards the other side.  However, if we see that the other side’s strategy is to look solely after its own best interests, which are being deliberately protected at the expense of our own good, or if we notice an openly hostile approach towards us, we should essentially keep on upholding a firm and unyielding stance. Only once we acquire this wisdom of seeing and discerning will we be able to adjust our actions in a way that will enable us to pave the way for the supreme, Divine justice.

Shabbat Shalom!

Menachem Mirski

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka