From which tribe are we? Thoughts on the customary reading of Parshat HaNesi’im during Nissan

Bakol Serlui is a Ramit at the Midreshet Lindenbaum – Matat branch in Carmiel

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Photo credit: Aluma Meshulami

The reading of Parshat HaNesi’im [the Torah passage recounting the offerings brought by the heads of tribes following the inauguration of the Mishkan] from the portion of Naso occurs twice in the Jewish calendar: The first time – over the eight days of Hanukkah; the second – at the beginning of the month of Nissan, when it is customarily said in private – a tradition that dates back to ancient times, and is first mentioned in Rabbi Yeshayahu Horowitz’s book Shnei Luchot HaBrit.

There is a close connection between the recitation of this particular passage and the time of year in which it is read.  The Tabernacle, erected at the beginning of the month of Nissan, was followed by a sequence of festive days, during which time each Nasi [head of tribe] brought his offering, as detailed in the portion of Naso. 

This year, for the first time in my life, I began reading Parshat HaNesi’im right after my morning prayers.  Earlier today, on the 2nd of Nissan, I read the verses describing the offering brought by the tribe of Yissachar, followed by the recitation of a beautiful supplication:

“May it be Your will, Lord my God and God of my ancestors, that You illuminate this day with Your great kindness upon the holy souls being renewed like birds chirping, singing, praising, and celebrating upon the holy People of Israel. Master of the Universe, bring and lead the holy chirping birds to the Holy Place of which it was said: ‘No eye has seen it but You, our God.’ May it be Your will, Lord my God and the God of my ancestors, that if I ,Your servant, am from the tribe of [so-and-so], whose portion of Torah reading was read on this day, then may all holy sparks and sacred lights encompassed within the holiness of this tribe shine upon me, so that I may understand and comprehend Your Torah and be instilled with Your fear, to do Your will all the days of my life, I, my offspring, and the offspring of my offspring from now and forevermore. Amen.”

From which tribe do we hail? The span of time in which we have been oblivious to our lineage is nearly commensurate with the duration of our belonging to this framework of kinship, which clearly delineated the fine yet vivid lines of character and personality of each and every tribe. The sons of Binyamin epitomized meticulousness and precision, while those of Yissachar embodied wisdom and erudition.

Yehuda’s descendants were characterized by their daring and fortitude; Reuven’s offspring were entrenched in pastoral pursuits, and the tribe of Zevulun was known for its seafaring tradition. My father likes saying in jest that we descend from the tribe of Shimon due to our inclination towards writing and our occasional irritability. Life in the tribal framework during the era of Israel’s settlement in its land was marked by territorial demarcations, matrimonial alliances (as depicted in the story of Zelophehad’s daughters), agricultural practices tailored to geographic regions, and the intricate web of political and geopolitical relations among neighboring tribes (as seen in the critique voiced by the prophetess Devorah regarding tribes that failed to come to the aid of the northern tribes during the conflict with Sisera’s army).

Our years in exile have obscured this basic knowledge from us, as tribes and families, and only a few, apart from the Levites, are privy to this information. The closest distant horizon I personally can cast my gaze upon is the familial tradition within my father’s family that we are descendants of Sephardic exiles who arrived in Holland after a century of wanderings in Central Europe.

Further afield, I know that I am Jewish, with ancient roots in the Land of Israel, dating back to the time the Jews were exiled from the land when the Second Temple was destroyed. Further still, in Biblical times, I know that ten of our tribes were lost to us. Indeed, the exile of the ten tribes may be the greatest demographic calamity ever to befall the people of Israel, a distant tragedy that occurred in the dawn of our history and which we scarcely recall today, despite being a people who dedicate a large portion of its spiritual resources to the remembrance of disasters and miracles.

Exile is not merely a loss of place, but it also entails a cultural loss of memory. Just before the exile, Rabi Yochanan ben Zakkai had the insight that Jewish life was undergoing a metamorphosis: “from place to text”. This revolution succeeded in a profoundly thought-provoking manner, and our absolute engagement with Torah texts continues to this day: the Jewish people managed to transition their existence from a physical realm to one of text and interpretation.

With the advent of the new tradition, there are traditions that have been lost. Thus, while some traditions successfully passed from father to son, such as Kehuna [the priesthood] and Levite lineage, the memory of the tribes as ancestral houses has been lost.

The wording of the supplication that follows the reading of Parshat HaNesi’im may be a correction to this reality: “May it be Your will, Lord my God and the God of my ancestors, that if I, Your servant, am from the tribe of [so-and-so], whose portion of Torah reading was read on this day, then may all holy sparks and sacred lights, encompassed within the holiness of this tribe, shine upon me…”

Despite the fact that we do not know our exact tribal affiliation, we seek not to lose our connection to our Jewish roots, both physical and spiritual.

There is a beautiful story about the fifth Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Shalom Dov-Ber Schneersohn (the Rashab), in which he instructed his son-in-law, a kohen, to recite this prayer after the reading of Parshat HaNesi’im (even though he knew he was from the tribe of Levi) because it pertains to the very root of our souls. Among Kabbalists and Chabad Hassidim, some see this invocation as a mystical reminder that we all have roots in distant places. 

We currently find ourselves in challenging times of uncertainty, division, and anger. It seems as though we are divided into tribes engaged in painful confrontation, constantly at odds with one another; making presumptions about other people’s worldview based on their place of residence, their sectorial affiliation and choice of attire. The division into Biblical tribes, which highlighted diverse identities, traits, and coalitions, as well as the constant fear of conflict or disconnection between these different groups, seems to be a reflection of our own times. Let us not forget that towards the end of the ominous period of the Judges, the tribe of Binyamin almost ceased to exist in a terrible fratricidal war, prevented only by the immense legal and cultural creativity exercised at the time, and which is commemorated until this very day. 

Reading the portion of the tribal offerings, Parshat HaNesi’im, in these turbulent days offers a possibility of healing: it reminds us that much like in a genetic code, we carry hidden roots within us, deeper than our eyes can see, and even after millennia of exile, forgetfulness, and discord, we are connected to one another in manners beyond our understanding.

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