One of the more interesting Midrashim regarding Keriat Yam Suf surrounds the nature of the tunnels through the crushing waters of the Reed Sea. The Midrash records that twelve separate tunnels were crafted through the water, one for each tribe. Why wasn’t one sufficient? Do we really need to be that divided?
As my Rebbe, Rabbi Zvi Grumet, pointed out, the need for multiple tunnels was a clear reference to the disunity of Bnei Yisrael. While they had come together enough to leave Egypt, the Chumash and Midrashim are full of references to events and issues with the Jewish community of the time which displayed many problems with unity and a difficulty coming together. The true story of the Midbar is the end of such tribalism, forging twelve Shevatim into one nation – the difference between NATO, a loose economic and military alliance with members still independent among themselves, and various states within the USA, all overseen by one federal government.
One of the most telling statements of this difficulty is in the first census, found in Parashat BeMidbar. First, we are given a list of Nesiim, each seemingly a head of state within the Jewish people. Then the Shevatim are further divided into Degalim, groups that are clearly arranged to avoid conflicts between Shevatim. For example, Shimon is placed under Reuven so Shimon won’t have to be subservient to Yehuda, a younger brother.
Once we arrive at the second census here in Parashat Pinchas, almost all of these issues are gone. While new Nesiim are selected, they are discussed later, outside the context of the census, and seem to be more along the lines of mayors or bureaucratic functionaries. Gone are the Degalim, the need to subdivide the Shevatim into larger divisions to facilitate movement or other national needs – they can simply walk together. The natural leaders – Reuven, Yehuda, Ephraim, and Dan (as the oldest of the maids’ children) are mixed into the count with everyone else, rather than distinguished through the larger political arrangement.
Building a nation is hard work. Turning slaves into free men and women does not happen overnight. It takes a long view to make it happen, and the willingness to put up with tremendous difficulty before the goal is accomplished. But, as in all societies, we can acquire small glimpses of the political and social reality of life in the Midbar through the census taking. The goal of reforming this society of slaves and tribes into one of unity and solidarity is one that we, in our own time of division and difficulty, should take to heart.