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July 9, 2021 11:41 am
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Why Loyalty and Integrity Are Central to Jewish Life

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Opinion

A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

The Book of Numbers draws to a close with themes of tribes, journeys, and possessions — with the fight for survival, cities of refuge, and vows, thrown in for good measure.

Personal vows, which were very significant once, are extensions of the national covenant between God and Israel. The first was with Abraham, and then expanded at Sinai, and again before entering the Land of Canaan. A vow is a commitment, whether personal or national.

This week’s reading concerns the preparations for entering Canaan.  The vows here are personal, to stress the need to stand by one’s commitments. And the division of spoils of war also played an important part in cementing society by involving everyone both in the battles for survival, and then reaping the rewards to be shared fairly amongst everyone. Later on, the Torah refers to Cities of Refuge, which were towns to be established on both sides of the Jordan River for individuals to flee to for sanctuary. This was crucial to the civil legal system at a time when prisons were not considered an ideal solution to criminality — yet also underlined personal responsibility.

On the other hand, there were social structures. The system of tribes, another feature that started with Abraham, was the foundation of Israelite life for over its first thousand years. It determined loyalty, and it was the basis of administration, judicial life, and territorial possessions. The Tribe was the microcosm of the nation, but it was also its weakness. The constant division, rivalry, and warfare disrupted unity and stability.

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The Tribal system ended with the Babylonian exile, and its only role after that was of the priests in the Temple. But even before the tribes got to their land, material possessions and partisan interests endangered unity as the tribes of Ruben, Gad, and half of Menashe preferred to stay on the East Bank. If one wants an example of how Judaism has changed over time, these chapters illustrate how Moses had tried but failed to reconcile personal interests with national ones. And sadly, this has been our history ever since.

These laws and traditions teach us what the essential elements are for a fair and equitable society: the need to keep one’s word and personal integrity. Loyalty ensures that a society shares certain common values, and the obligation to establish rights and protections of individuals. The secret of success and survival is a balance between personal and national interests, and many of us still haven’t learned the lesson.

Shabbat Shalom. And may the month of Av turn from one of mourning to one of joy.

The author is a rabbi and writer in New York City.

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