Bowling leagues are good for your health! Mahjong clubs too. Today I present a short summary of a lecture I heard this week from Rabbi Haim Navon about why Israel was and is a nation of tribes, given as part of the annual Herzog College Study days.
In the book of Bamidbar a headcount is taken, all the males in a family and in the extended family, and then in the tribe. Persons as individuals counted only as part of their family/tribe. This division was perceived and admired by the great seer Balaam when he came to curse us: “And he saw Israel sitting by their tribes” and he was impressed enough to bless us.
What benefit was there in our being divided by tribes? According to Rabbi Soloveichik, this allowed each tribe to develop its own “flavor” and flair. Mingle all the tribes and the result is uniformity, lacking in the spice of diversity.
Historically, we began as a family, that developed into a tribe (Jacob) and then a nation of tribes. Only later were we united under a centralized authority. And over the centuries, tribalism was more important than unity.
This is something we see today. We may, in a few hundred years, have Ashkenazim and Sefardim and Yemenites and others praying together. Today, each wants its own traditions and flavor.
In the Torah, tribalism reigns supreme. When the daughters of Zelofchad tell Moshe that they want to inherit their father’s land – in order to keep the property within the family and the tribe – they are given the thumbs-up. When the tribe leaders complain that the arrangement may lead to the tribe LOSING land if the women marry out – another arrangement is made. They can marry as they wish – within the clan. And they did, at least during the first generation in Canaan, according to CHAZAL.
This concern about land was connected to the Yovel, the Jubilee year. Every 50 years, the slaves were freed and returned to their land and the land was supposed to go back to the original owners, from the original tribes. Was this socialism in action? Egalitarianism? Not really. Two reasons were given. First to show that the land did not belong to the people but to God, and second, to allow the people – slaves included – to return to their roots.
But equality? No. If a family had eight children, it could leave the inheritance to the eldest and the others would work for him, or they could give the eldest half the land and divide the rest among the seven siblings. In essence, each would get a strip of land on which he could sit and rock all day. They were poor. If a family had only one child – that child would inherit all the land and be richer than his prolific neighbors.
But the important thing was that people had land. And family. And a support system. In Egypt, thanks in part to Joseph, Pharaoh owned all the land except that belonging to the priests. That’s why Egypt is called “the home of slaves.” No land for them.
How strong was the attachment to the land? Unbelievably strong. The most extreme example is that of King Ahab who wanted the vineyard belonging to Navot. He doesn’t take it. He offers Navot a better parcel of land or a high price. An offer you shouldn’t refuse. But Navot did!
What did Ahab do? He went home, got into bed and sulked! He could not take the inherited land of another person! And he was the king! Even Jezebel his evil wife couldn’t find a legal way to “take” it.
Back in the 1830s, Alex de Tocqueville was sent to America by France to examine the prison system. He extended his stay and visited the whole country. One of the phenomena that astounded him most was the number of associations he found in America. Religious groups, health groups, firefighter groups, groups to send missionaries abroad, groups to help the poor, groups to fight drunkenness. In Europe, he said, most of these things would have been passed on to the government to deal with. In America, the people undertook to deal with problems as a group, basically – as small tribes.
Sociologist Jonathan Haidt took this one step further. He contended that participating in such organizations, associations, federations is good for mental health. It gives people a purpose, it gives people a sense of affiliation and belonging. And that, he says, is why joining a bowling league, or a bridge league, or a mahjong club or any other group activity with a specific purpose recreates the feeling of tribalism and contributes to good mental health (so the characters in “Big Lebovsky” were mentally healthy?!).
A group can also be a political party, and as we well know, Israel has many such groups, all pulling in different directions. This is the potentially negative side of tribalism. On the other hand, when we see the great contribution of some of the groups (and we can include Shearim in them), we understand how affiliation helps those who receive and those who give. The important thing that is sometimes forgotten is that when push comes to shove, we are all working together for the good of our country.
Enjoy your bowling!