I want to start with the first pasuk of our parasha:
What does ראשי המטות mean? A מטה is a staff, so ראשי המטות literally means (as Rabbi Matis Weinberg points out) ”chiefs of staff“, which Rabbi Weinberg calls “weirdly literal”. This will turn out to be significant later.
Throughout ספר במדבר, the tribes are called מטות, rather than the word we usually use, שבטים. What is the difference between a שבט and a מטה? Both are literally sticks (a שבט is a rod or scepter), and are metonyms for leadership and thus for the tribe as a whole.
The commentators differ on the significance of the two words.
The Lubavitch Rebbe expanded this idea:
But it’s hard to reconcile with the way the words are used in תנ״ך:
Rav Hirsch (as cited in Clark’s Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew) connects שבט to שפט; it is a symbol of judgment and power. And מטה is derived from מוט, tottering, as in (תהילים קכא:ג) אַל יִתֵּן לַמּוֹט רַגְלֶךָ; אַל יָנוּם שֹׁמְרֶךָ׃. It’s the exact opposite interpretation from the Lubavitch Rebbe’s.
Rabbi Matis Wienberg explains the difference in the symbolism as relating to the literal meanings of the words, but he starts by pointing out the problem with this week’s parasha. After spending the entire book of Bamidbar creating the united camp of Israel from the disparate tribes, then telling the stories of how the divisions between them led to the failures of the 40 years in the desert, the Torah seems to go out of its wy to encourage tribal divisions.
The command about נדרים we have seen was specifically given to ראשי המטות. The nation would enter the land separated by tribes:
The tribes were effectively commanded to not intermarry, to keep the tribes separate:
And this was seen as a tragedy, to the extent that when this rule was rescinded, it was a day of great celebration:
And even the army in this parasha is divided by tribes:
And in the end, some of the tribes seem to split off:
And it almost leads to civil war:
Rabbi Weinberg focuses on the meaning of שבט and מטה. A שבט as we said, is an instrument of judgment, a club for punishment. A מטה is a staff, a tool for support:
(Of course, in The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf’s staff turns out to be more of an offensive club)
ספר במדבר allows, even encourages, a tribal identity, but only as long as it exists to support one another, not to attack.
Rabbi Weinberg goes further, noting the difference in the English meanings of the words and thinking that it applies to the Hebrew symbolism as well:
Rav Hirsch adds that a מטה also implies a “branch”, something still connected to the root:
So the split into מטות, while dangerous, is still critically necessary for forming a nation out of בני ישראל:
Our differences make our unity possible. This is an important message for developing the sense of אהבת חינם that we need in the nine days that have just begun.