The nation of Israel was not formed as one bloc but rather divided into twelve different tribes with a common mandate and destiny. Such was noticed by the heathen prophet Bil’am who lifted his eyes “and saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes” (Bamidbar 24:2). It impressed him so much that he uttered words that accompany our daily entry in shul: “How good are your tents, Yaakov, and your sanctuaries, Israel.” What exactly did Bil’am see in our tents that was so “good”?
Rashi comments that Bil’am saw Israel dwelling according to our tribal formation, and he perceived that “each tribe [was] living by itself and not commingling, and that the entrances to their tents were not aligned so one person could not look into the home of his neighbor.” Such a nation he deemed worthy of having the Divine presence rest on it.
A few verses later, Rashi reiterates that Bil’am noticed that our tent entrances were not aligned, and perhaps there are two different points being made. One response was engendered by the tribal formation and the other by our tents. The entrances to the tents were not aligned for purposes of modesty and privacy. Too often people are tempted to find out what’s going on in someone else’s house; thus, this safeguard was enacted. Jewish law prescribes where we are allowed to build doors, windows, balconies and the like so as not to encroach on the privacy rights of others. We let others invite us in; we don’t intrude or insert ourselves where we do not belong. That is the definition of the “good tent.”
But Bil’am also saw us dwelling according to our tribes, each tribe to itself, and each entrance staggered so we don’t peer into the next tent. This is not modesty but propriety and broadmindedness. To peer into someone else’s tent means to scrutinize their conduct, to search for the slightest non-conformity, to seek out and highlight the differences, especially the failures or departures from the norm, that very often and improperly agitate and perturb us a little too much. The point is that all Jews are not the same. We were not formed as a linear, one-dimensional nation. If we were, then we wouldn’t dwell in tribes, and we would have our “entrances aligned,” all Jewish homes would look alike, sound alike and act alike. And that is not so and has never been so. We are a nation of tribes.
Among the most hollow, vacuous and pointless expressions we hear again and again is the call for unity. It sounds good – but unity occurred only happened at Sinai when we received the Torah. Indeed, if we were meant to have an imposed unity on the Jewish people, we would not have been divided into twelve tribes, nor would it be praiseworthy that Bil’am “saw that all the tribes lived apart and did not mingle.” We would all have to live together, do the same things in the same way, and never deviate. But each tribe has its own path and we glorify our own path and dismiss others out of ignorance. In effect, there are twelve paths to G-d, and each tribe represents a different one. I cannot emphasize enough that I am not referring to halacha here. The opposite is true. Every legitimate path – bar none – has to be faithful to Jewish law. But to think that there is only one way, or even that my way is necessarily better, holier or closer to G-d’s will, is a mistake. And so we are told not to “peer into the tent of our neighbors.”
This requires further explanation, so here is an example. In Israel today, there is a revolution taking place in the Charedi world, what is being called the rise of the “Charedi middle class.” There always were wealthy Charedim who subsidized most of the rest – but now there is a middle class that today has its own organizations, culture, websites and publications. They are more at home in general society even while not fully partaking of it. There is a multi-million dollar industry of advertising to the Charedi community, now that there are Charedi consumers who work (more than 50% of Charedi men of working age now work) and spend their earnings as they wish. Communities evolve.
I recently read an article on this phenomenon, and the author noted that when R. Simcha Elberg (longtime editor of Hapardes) visited Bnai Brak for the first time in the 1960’s, he dubbed it the “olam hachumros,” the world of stringencies. He did not mean it pejoratively as some people might take it, but descriptively, a world that chooses the most stringent interpretations of halacha in every aspect of life because they choose to limit their interactions with the rest of society. But he notes that traditional Jewry was never like that; it is something unique.
Is that approach wrong or a distortion of the true Torah? No; it’s just different. That’s a tribe, even if it’s not my particular tribe. We have room for a tribe of machmirim who deserve our respect even if others choose a different way – and as long as they also realize there are different ways within halacha (and, again, I am not at all referring to the neo-Cons who proclaim themselves Orthodox but deviate from Orthodoxy in law, practice and ideology because of their absorption of modernist and non-Jewish trends). It is not better to be stringent, just like it is not better to be lenient. Halacha is case and fact sensitive, but even more importantly each religious grouping is just a different tribe.
It has been noted frequently that Mizrachi communities always studied Torah differently than in Ashkenazi communities, and halachic norms and emphases were also different. The Israeli Charedi is markedly different from the American Charedi, just as the American ModO increasingly has less and less in common with the Israeli dati leumi. These are all tribes of Israel.
One thing that we have learned over the course of history is that the religious eco-system is very finely balanced. You pull a little too much here and something unravels there, which is part of the Lakewood problem we are dealing with these days. If the only goal is Torah study, then you might tend to cut corners somewhere else in order to sustain it. If a college or higher education is deemed evil and unacceptable, thereby impairing one’s earning potential, money for self-sustenance will have to be acquired in some other fashion. On the other hand, if Torah study is not a primary value at all, then there is a tendency to cut corners somewhere else and our minds become littered with Western, non-Torah values that we talk ourselves into thinking are Torah values. And when college or higher education is perceived as a value in its own right, and not simply as a means to earning a living or gaining a broader perspective on life, there is no shortage of Jewish souls that have been lost treading that path. College attendance poses risks if you go and if you don’t go, unless you remain in a Yeshiva environment and that too is not a panacea.
Similarly, Lakewood may possess one set of problems but it is unlikely their rabbis are often asked, for example, about the propriety of attending intermarriages or same-sex marriages, a phenomenon to which some ModO rabbis, to their discredit, are increasingly amenable. That, too, is a price paid for indulging the modern culture and ethos.
Since there is no perfect system, we all have to learn from each other. Jews who mock the foibles of any group are really mocking themselves, a most distasteful, self-defeating and even masochistic tendency. Each tribe, like each individual, is a different composite of virtues and vices, of mitzvot and aveirot. No one is perfect – and that is why it is wrong and frivolous, even arrogant, to peer into someone else’s tent and demand that he conform to my standard, my stringency or my leniency. We are twelve tribes. There are tribes that emphasize Torah study, prayer, acts of kindness, modesty, public service, settlement, military service or the like, and historically it was always like this. Some people need stringencies to survive spiritually while others would be crushed by them, just like there are some who could benefit from a stringency or two but don’t embrace them because they are too comfortable in their spiritual skins, are at peace with their flaws, or often assume incorrectly that what they perceive as a “stringency” is actually the essential law.
To say that everyone has to be like me or like us is as foolish as saying there’s nothing we can learn from any other tribe. All are wrong. Each person must dwell under the banner of his tribe but all the tribes have to reflect fidelity to Torah. Our entrances are not aligned so that if we peer into someone else’s tent, our perspective is necessarily skewed. One comment of Rashi refers to modesty in our interpersonal relations but the other refers to the mutual respect and tolerance that all Torah Jews in all our different groupings – Ashkenaz and Mizrachi, Yeshivish and non-Yeshivish – and, indeed, all Jews, must have so we can grow together, learn from each other and strengthen each other.
And of our brothers and sisters who have rejected Torah and Mitzvot and created ideologies that rationalize their non-observance and, these days, defend even intermarriage, assimilation and opposition to Jewish rights in the land of Israel? Those who are still halachic Jews are part of the Jewish people but I fear for their future. Their numbers are dwindling even as their proclamations and threats become shriller. Are they, too, a tribe? I think not; it would be awkward to define a tribe of Israel as non-observant deniers of Torah, Mesorah and sometimes even G-d’s existence. But they are certainly part of the existing tribes, albeit less faithful and committed. They must find the leadership and the inner will that bring them back to Torah observance and full participation in Jewish life, and perceive themselves as valued members of the great odyssey of the Jewish people rather than as a bridgehead for the reformation of Judaism according to Western and secular values. That has undeniably been a road to oblivion. Witnessing it should evoke in us tears of anguish and openness to outreach and acceptance.
It is not unity that the Jewish people require but rather love – love of each other because of our diversity and not despite it, love of each other as individuals and as one nation that transcends our differences and even our flaws. Sin’at Chinam (baseless hatred), the Netziv wrote, is hatred for another because he is slightly different than you. Such hatred destroyed the Beit Hamikdash and has prolonged our exile. Ahavat Yisrael is the cure for all that ails us.
In so doing, the world will again look at us and admire our tents, our diversity and our common objective of bringing glory to G-d and His Torah and we will usher the world itself into the era of complete redemption.