Quite remarkably, even the most seemingly arcane scriptural narrative can be a source of deep insight. Consider the arrangement of the encampment of the Israelites described in details in the opening chapters of the book of Numbers.

 

Among the insights that emerge from the text are the following. According to the Midrash, the diffident tribe of Shimon was situated between the tribes of Reuven and Gad so that the Shimonites would be influenced by their more pious kin. The Midrash here assumes that each tribe had its own particular traits.

 

The narrative does not include the tribe of Levi in the count of all the tribes (Numbers 1:47). The nonpareil medieval commentator RaShI explains that since the Levites were charged with the transport and service of the Tabernacle, they were endowed with a special degree of holiness and “the King’s special legion deserves to be counted separately.

 

According to Rabbi Jacob ben Asher Ba’al Ha-Turim, the tribe of Naftali was composed mainly by women. And the tribe of Efraim spoke a different dialect of Hebrew. The book of Judges (12:6) reports that in the internecine war with the Gileadites, the secret password to root out spies was “shibboleth.” Apparently the Eframites could not pronounce the diphthong “sh.”

 

What all these small observations point out is that every tribe was a distinct society with a specific population, language, status, and ethos. Nevertheless, each tribe worshipped in the same sanctuary, observed the same holidays, worshipped the same God, followed the same leaders, and kept the same calendar. No tribe was invested with any more power than another. And no tribe lived in sublime solitude. This is a critical observation for the Jewish people today beset by so many issues of conflict. Rather than pick at the scab of differences, it is far better to concentrate on what unites all Jews rather than on what separates.