We read this week: “Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying…” (Numbers 30:2)
It is rare that the Torah addresses the leaders and not the people as a whole. In most instances the Torah states instead, “Moses spoke to the people, saying…” (Numbers 31:1) Why in this instance would Moses speak to the tribal heads rather than the people?
Perhaps the secret can be discerned in the laws detailed in this chapter. Here we read about the concept of making vows. The Hatam Sofer, a leading rabbi in 19th century Germany, asks the very same questions and opines that this law is directed at leaders because people in public office are more often tempted to make promises that they cannot keep. It is as if to say, “Be on guard of the words and promises you make.”
I would like to suggest a different reason.
On Tuesday we marked the 17th of Tammuz, the fast day commemorating the beginning of the destruction of Jerusalem. It is this day, nearly two thousand years ago, that the Romans breached the walls surrounding the city. The city and the Temple were destroyed three weeks later on Tisha B’Av (the ninth of Av). This period of mourning marks the Jewish people’s greatest tragedy, until the modern period and its Holocaust. The loss of the Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem and the slaughter then of so many Jews is still remembered even at Jewish weddings by the breaking of the glass.
It was of course the Romans, and prior to that the Babylonians, who destroyed the first and second Temples, but yet the rabbis engaged in what was sometimes wrenching introspection in order to uncover how the Jewish people might have been at fault for their own destruction. They more often than not suggested that it was because of baseless hatred of one Jew for another. The seeds of our demise were sown by how we screamed and yelled at each other.
The rabbis of course believed in argument and especially passionate debate. They taught that truth can only emerge when we openly argue and debate with one another. We read: “Any debate that is for the sake of heaven, its end will continue; but that which is not for the sake of heaven, its end will not continue. What is a debate for the sake of heaven? The debate between Rabbis Hillel and Shammai. And a debate that is not for the sake of heaven? The debate of Korah and his entire band of rebels.” (Avot 5:17)
There is a fine line between a positive and negative argument. It rests in how we approach those with whom we disagree. The rabbis offer us an important insight. While we might be strengthened by debate, we are weakened by tribal divisions. When we debate we must ask, are we arguing so that truth might emerge? Or are we arguing instead to draw divisions between us?
This is why Moses speaks to the tribal heads. Our very survival depends on how our leaders argue and debate. It rests in how leaders speak to one another.