[In the picture: The flag of the tribe of Naphtali... The image was created and uploaded to Wikipedia by Shavitco. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.]
[For articles on the “Sabbath of Naso" in Hebrew, click here]
Updated on May 24, 2023
Rabbi Dr. Yossi Feintuch was born in Afula and holds a Ph.D. in American history from Emory University in Atlanta. He taught American history at Ben-Gurion University.
Author of the book US Policy on Jerusalem (JCCO).
He now serves as rabbi at the Jewish Center in central Oregon. (JCCO).
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Last week – or this week in the Diaspora Torah calendar – the tribe of Naftali was singled out, among the tribes of Israel who were counted for battle in the Wilderness of Sinai, in a foremost subtle way, yet significant. While all tribes are referenced as ‘’For the sons of… [name of tribe], only the tribe that concludes the list (Numbers 1:32), the tribe of Naftali, is referenced without the word ‘’for’’; so, it simply reads ‘’the sons of Naftali…’’. ‘’For’’ is represented in the Hebrew by the letter lamed ((ל, the tallest in the Hebrew letters, and it is missing only before ‘’the sons of Naftali…’’ at the end of the tribal list. Igra d’kalah comments: “All other tribes had a reason to feel pride as each of them preceded another tribe. But the tribe of Naftali that closes that list had, therefore, no reason to feel pride. Hence, it is missing the letter lamed (or the word ‘’For’’ in translation).
Naftali was Jacob’s sixth son born to Bilaah, Rachel’s handmaid. Rachel, unable to conceive thus far, wanted to raise a child of her own with Jacob, and was willing to concede her biological motherhood as long as her desire was realized, not minding Bilaah’s consorting with her beloved Jacob for that goal. From his own conception, Naftali was a product of humility for whose birth Rachel’s pride had to be sacrificed on the altar of a wholesome purpose.
[In the photo: a stamp dedicated to the Naftali tribe. The image is in the public domain]
Now, the tribe of Naftali was not the twelfth to warrant its last position in the above-mentioned draft counting list. Arguably, the tribe of Naftali chose to close off that list out of total humility and the wish to be a national unifier. Ergo, it took upon itself the task of imparting to the youngest tribe of Benjamin the pride of not being last among the tribes whose young men were counted as qualified for a future draft.
And we see that quest evinced anew in the order of the twelve tribes who gave identical presents to the Tent of Meeting upon its inauguration as described in the tedious and long narrative that concludes this week’s Torah portion, Naso. Last on that list is the tribe of Naftali though it did not belong there. The Hasidic Rabbi Hanoch of Alexander commented that the tribe as represented by its chieftain was kind and generous by allowing the other tribal chieftains to go before him for none wanted to come last.
I can’t help but recall that Ilan Ramon, an Israel Air force pilot (and an astronaut on the doomed Columbia shuttle), who had determined the location of each pilot in the four-jet squadron that was poised to target and decommission the Iraqi Osirak nuclear plant before it went operational in 1981; Ramon positioned himself fourth and last. He did so because the number four jet was at the most risk for being shot down. Ilan Ramon volunteered himself, like the chief of Naftali, for that last spot because he was the only one of the four pilots who was not married at the time…
According to the Torah Shelemah commentary, Naftali himself informed Judah, when their other brothers wanted to kill Joseph. Judah, the shaker and mover among his brothers, was able to calm, then, their fierce anger and settle on throwing Joseph into a pit, rather than killing him -- thanks to Naftali’s information. For Naftali knew that a solution to the ‘’Joseph problem’’ was not in going radical but in driving the brothers to a united action and harmony. Similarly, the Jonathan’s translation of the Torah into Aramaic informs us that it was Naftali who announced to father Jacob two decades later that Joseph was alive in Egypt; that announcement would bring about the migration of the whole Israelite household to Egypt; it would thus reunite Jacob’s divided family with Joseph. It is no wonder then that the tribe of Naftali volunteered at the expense of its own pride to pick up the rear in the Sinai Wilderness that exposed it to the brunt of the Amalek assaults on the stragglers at the tender and soft edges of the Israelite camp.
[In the photo: It is no wonder then that the tribe of Naftali volunteered at the expense of its own pride to pick up the rear in the Sinai Wilderness that exposed it to the brunt of the Amalek assaults on the stragglers at the tender and soft edges of the Israelite camp... free bible images]
Torah commentator Rafi Yaakobi notes that Barak ben Avinoam was the only biblical Chieftain to have emerged from the tribe of Naftali. Yet he pleaded with the prophetess D’vorah, an Ephramite, to co-lead with him the Israelite army against the Canaanite war machine led by its general, Sisra. Barak knew that with D’vorah with him at the helm the victory would not only be assured but also attributed to her, a woman of another tribe. Yet it was Barak who was able to recruit warriors not only from his own tribe but also from Ephraim, D’vorah’s tribe, and several more tribes, an achievement of a good measure of intra-tribal unity, not seen thus far since the days of Joshua as a national leader. Betraying a typical characteristic of the tribe of Naftali, Barak demonstrated that his pride and prestige did not matter as long as a military victory was scored, even if it would be attributed to his female co-commander. Like the progenitor of the tribe who had united somewhat his brothers in the case of Joseph by facilitating the physical survival of Joseph and later the reunification of the Jacob clan with Joseph in Egypt, the tribe of Naftali in the early chapters of the books of Numbers and Judges concedes its pride to become a national unifier. Or in the words of Ronald Reagan: “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don't care who gets the credit.”
[In the photo: a bee under the palm tree, a painting by James Tissot from about 1900. The image is in the public domain]
[For articles on the “Sabbath of Naso " in Hebrew, click here]
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Yossi Feintuch: Naftali – the national unifier”
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