Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
May 25, 2002 14 Sivan 5762
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
The pronounced and unsettling shift to the right in western Europe springs from several sources. But feeding them all is the residual power of the nation–state as a determinative factor in ethnic identity. The mega–trends of immigration, globalization and European unification have triggered in many a deep–seated fear of the loss of their national character. At first these trends were hailed as countervailing the extreme nationalism to which the nation–state had been prone in the twentieth century. Yet political identity remains stubbornly local, a function of the diminished reality of the nation–state. Deep structures are not susceptible to easy change even when they have become clearly dysfunctional.
That too is the sober lesson of the early history of the Jewish people. The experience of oppression in Egypt and revelation at Sinai had endowed the Israelites with a profound sense of national purpose, but not with a political organization capable of confronting the challenges of statehood in a region wracked by upheaval. Over time, the tribal confederation envisioned, especially by the book of Numbers, proved to be a political liability. Its decentralized ethos thwarted the national unity and strong centralized government necessary to carry out the conquest of Canaan and to protect the Israelite entity set up in its wake. The arrival of a formidable enemy in the form of the Philistines underscored the urgency of political reform to forge a more effective instrument of foreign policy. But the monarchy that resulted foundered on insurmountable tribal allegiances. Indeed, the tribal rifts that bedeviled the Israelite body politic throughout the first Temple period were not transcended till the restoration of Jerusalem as a tiny city–state by the Persians at the end of the sixth century BCE, after the Babylonian exile and the disappearance of the ten tribes.
It is this important political theme, and not the ascetic institution of the nazirite, which unites for me this week's parashah and haftarah. The book of Judges delivers the epitaph for the political order described in Numbers. Charisma alone in the figure of Samson could never wrest control of Canaan back from the Philistines.
For Numbers the basic political unit is the tribe. It opens by listing the twelve names of the tribal leaders (1:5–15), and at the end of our parashah, each one is accorded the honor of dedicating his offering to the Tabernacle altar on his own special day. Though all the offerings are identical, they are listed separately. The repetition serves to drive home the point that the tribe is the building block of the nation (7:10–83).
Similarly, the census prior to leaving Mount Sinai is done by tribe, with Judah at 74,600 males of military age the largest (1:20–42), as is the formation of the camp while traveling (ch. 2). The redeployment of the tribe of Levi to replace the first–born Israelites in the portage of the Tabernacle is yet another instance of the triumph of the tribal principle (ch. 3). Politically, the older idea of drafting all first–born Israelites would have cut across tribal lines, adding a cohesive factor. But Numbers does not go beyond a paradigm of distinct tribes with a common ancestry united by a shared cultic center.
With the auspicious birth of Samson, the haftarah introduces us into the disordered era of Israelite settlement in Canaan after the death of Joshua. Announced to his parents by an angel, Samson is to lead the life of an ascetic nazirite. But the immense physical strength that derives from that status is frittered away in lust and frivolity. Instead of freeing the Israelites from the yoke of the Philistines, he falls victim to the seductions of their women. The Mishnah comments that his fate fit his deportment. When the Philistines finally capture him, they blind him because his eyes did him in (Sotah 1:7). The insignificance of his twenty–year reign as a judge, about which we hear not a word, is accentuated by the terse fact that in bringing down the temple of Dagon, filled to overflowing with Philistines in revelry, Samson killed more in his death than in his lifetime (Judges 16:30). Sadly, he had squandered a grand opportunity for institutional change, leaving nothing of permanence either for his tribe (Dan) or for the nation.
But Samson is just one of thirteen chieftains whose ephemeral feats are recounted in the book of Judges. Institutions of self–government in this period are barely operative and unification for the common good, infrequent. The book opens with a picture of the conquest entirely at odds with that of Joshua, that is, neither coordinated nor sweeping nor swift. According to Judges, each tribe acted on its own, taking whatever territory it could. Large swaths of land remained in the hands of the natives (ch. 1), and the tribe of Dan ended up with no territory at all (ch. 18). When Deborah and Barak routed Sisera, the general of the Canaanite king Jabin, at Mount Tabor, their army of 10,000 men did not include contingents from the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Asher (5:15–17). On occasion, the tribes even fell to savage fighting among themselves. The final line of the book conveys the view of the author and the chaos of the times: "In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he pleased (21:25)."
The creation of a united monarchy under Saul from the tribe of Benjamin strengthened Israel's hands against the Philistines, but did little to reduce the internal fault lines. Tribal loyalties still simmered beneath the surface of the political landscape. With David's ascendance to the throne, the southern tribe of Judah rose to dominance, though only temporarily. Despite vast expenditures to reconfigure the country's political and religious center of gravity in the newly conquered city of Jerusalem, the House of David governed but eighty years before the tribal rifts reasserted themselves. In vain did Rehoboam, Solomon's son, have himself acclaimed king in Samaria. The ten northern tribes rejected his rule, leaving only the powerful tribe of Judah loyal to David's lineage ensconced in Jerusalem. Thereafter, two Israelite kingdoms, the political expression of conflicting tribal interests (and often at war with each other) divided the ancestral home of the promised land. Neither a shared religious patrimony nor common enemies could overcome the deep structures of tribal identity. Besides extraordinary sagacity and patience, institutional change usually requires a jolt from without.