Politics & Parsha: Bamidbar 5771

Posted on May 27, 2011 In Archives

Politics & Parsha: “Shul Politics Like Never Before”

Each week IPA Deputy Director of Public Policy Howie Beigelman takes a look at the weekly parsha and discusses it in a way you may never have seen. Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official psak or policy of the OU.

Bamidbar 5771: Banner Year

The Bible relates, in rather copious detail, how the 12 tribes encamped while in the desert (I like to imagine this is where Cecil B. DeMille got his “And amidst the chaos, it was Joshua who made order” riff in the Ten Commandments). Three tribes encamped on each side with the Levite families between those tribes and the sanctuary and Moses and Aaron nearest the Tabernacle itself. On each side, one of the tribes was chosen to wield a banner and serve as leader of the other tribes encamped near them.

All this makes sense when we think of Israel’s forty year sojourn. But, at this point, they were supposed to be on their way, rather shortly, to Canaan itself. That’s why we have spent chapter and verse performing a national census. Why this need for elaborate on the rental if we are about to put a down payment on the permanent home so soon?

One imagines that even in the short time the Jews initially encamped in the desert, that they already had regional differences, and probably rooted for different sports teams. But in the end, the lesson of G-d’s placecards is that every tribe has its banner and every region has their flag but they are all equidistant from (and to) the Tabernacle and they all pay homage and honor to it and its inhabitant.

In stark political terms, we would call this preemption. The federal government preempts the states in all areas of national sovereignty. States can’t make their own treaties, negotiate with foreign governments (or even Native American tribes) or have their own armies.

But it means even more than just subservience to a greater master.

Winston Churchill once opined “When I am abroad, I always make it a rule never to criticize or attack the government of my own country. I make up for lost time when I come home.” Similarly, when George W. Bush was asked about President Obama in early 2009, he responded simply “He deserves my silence.”

In politics (and in our communal & family lives) we all too often spend our time dividing into teams, parties, cliques and the like. I recently heard a US Congressman relate that when first elected, he knew well enough to sit on the “right” side of the aisle for his party. But what he didn’t realize was that every region or subculture sat in certain areas. Regional, ideological and seniority all played a role in who sat with whom.

Someone who’s an opponent on one issue can be an ally on another. Someone who has no knowledge in a certain area is expert in another. And if we all remember that whatever flag we fly or banner we bear, there’s a cause greater than all that we serve. That is the lesson of the Israelite camp and it’s one that bears remembering in our hyper-partisan times and in an era when we can self select and self identify and choose to associate with people down to the most minute details.

Words to consider, ideas to ponder — politics & the parsha.