In this week’s Parsha, there are two lists that are intertwined. One of those lists is the size of each tribe and the other is the name of each of the families that came to Egypt with Ya’akov.
The two tribes that stand out regarding size are the tribes of Menashe and Shimon. Over the 38 years in the desert, Menashe went from being the smallest tribe to the 6th largest tribe while Shimon went from being one of the largest tribes to the smallest tribe. Rashi explains that the tribe of Shimon suffered most from the various plagues that affected the Jews in the desert. The 24,000 who died in the plague mentioned at the end of last week’s Parsha and in the beginning of today’s Parsha were all from the tribe of Shimon. Apparently, they also suffered during other plagues.
Regarding the growth of the tribe of Menashe, we know that their ancestor Yosef and – in this week’s Parsha - the daughters of Tzelafchad displayed a love for the Land of Israel. Perhaps their growth was a blessing from G-d, measure for measure. They had a love for the Land of Israel, therefore they experienced growth before entering the land of Israel.
In a certain sense, we see some of that in our time. The Jewish people have shown their love and dedication to the Land of Israel and we have prospered there. The Land of Israel is called “Eretz Hatzvi – the Land of the deer.” Just as the skin of a deer expands to accommodate its growth, so too does the Land of Israel expand to accommodate the growth of the Jewish people.
During the days of the British Mandate, the English governing body felt that the Land of Israel could accommodate between two and 2.5 million people and no more. When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, there were about 600,000 Jews in the country. Today, thank G-d, there are more than 6 million and, G-d willing, that number will continue to grow. The British were wrong because they did not take into account the unnatural quality of the Land of Israel.
The second list is that of the families of the Jewish people. Some families are listed as one name in the Book of Breishis when Ya’akov went down to Egypt and as another name in this week’s Parsha. In the Tanach it is not unusual for people to be known by more than one name - e.g. Yisro is referred to by seven different names. However, there are seven families that are missing. In addition, the Tribe of Levi also lost a few families. What happened to all of them?
Rashi explains – based upon the Talmud Yerushalmi – that when Aharon died, the Jewish people retreated eight encampments in the desert and then attempted to return to Egypt. The Tribe of Levi tried to stop them and a civil war broke out. In that civil war, those eleven families were wiped out.
This was not the first fight among the Jewish people in the desert. We find that the Jews in the desert constantly fought with Moshe. There were several complaints and rebellions. Unfortunately, many people died as a result of those revolts. However, this civil war might have been the worst – taking down with it almost eleven complete families of the Jewish people.
But, the Jewish people did not learn from that fight. The fighting continued through the period of the Prophets, throughout the era of the second Bais Hamikdash and has kept going until today with a few commercial breaks. Some of the fights – such as that of the Levi’im trying to stop the rest of the Jews from returning to Egypt – were necessary. Others sometimes turned downright disgraceful. In the 19th century there were fights between Hasidim and Misnagdim that sometimes spiraled out of control to the point of informing against each other to the various governments.
However, all the fights have a common denominator - they all drained the Jewish people and had unfortunate consequences – people killed, imprisoned and giving up on Judaism.
So, what do we learn from the terrible civil war hinted in today’s Parsha? We continue to fight, despite knowing the terrible consequences that will result. We convince ourselves that we are fighting for the sake of Heaven, when in reality we are acting out of selfishness.
We are in the period of the year when we mourn for the loss of the Bais Hamikdash due to disputes among the people. So, how do we correct the situation?
We don’t always have to be confrontational – even though we enjoy doing so. Every Shmone Esrai that we say ends with the word “BaShalom.” The Talmud ends with the word “BaShalom.” The Rabbis were giving us a strong hint. One can discuss matters and disagree with another person. However, that does not mean that it is obligatory to fight about it.