Tribe, tribal, tribalism... The word has a nice primitive ring to it, and words with nice-primitive rings are very much in style these days. We're all celebrating our tribal identities, researching our tribes' histories and incorporating a tribal ritual or two in our lives.

But styles come and go, so it's safe to assume that within a half-decade or so tribalism will be as passé as the Marlboro Man. (Remember when he was cool?) We need a more timeless frame of reference.

Looking at the Torah (which is as timeless as it gets), we get a mixed message.

On the one hand, Torah seems to be quite pro-tribal from the get-go. From the beginning, Jacob's twelve sons are slated to father the twelve tribes of Israel. On his deathbed, Jacob blesses each one individually, imparting to each the qualities and gifts that will define his tribe's distinct role within the people of Israel; Moses does the same when blessing the twelve tribes two centuries later, on the eve of the people's entry into the Holy Land. In their travels through the desert, each tribe had its own leader or "prince," its own encampment in its designated place around the Tabernacle, its own color and flag, its own representative stone on the ceremonial breastplate worn by the High Priest. The Midrash even tells us that when the Sea of Reeds split for the Children of Israel it provided twelve different openings, so that each tribe could travel its own designated path.

But the most significant delineator of tribal identity is what happened when the people of Israel entered the Holy Land. The land was divided into twelve territories, and each tribe was allotted the portion that suited its particular vocation as shepherds, vintners, seafaring merchants, soldiers, scholars, olive growers, and so on.

The extent to which the Torah goes to preserve the integrity of the tribal territories is evidenced by an incident recorded in this week's Parshah, in the closing verses of the Book of Numbers. Several chapters back (in Numbers 27) we read about the daughters of Tzelafchad, who approached Moses with a petition to receive their father's portion in the Holy Land. Under biblical law, only sons inherited the ancestral estate. Tzelafchad had five daughters but no sons; the result, argued the five daughters, would be that their father's legacy would be lost! G‑d accepted their petition, and instructed Moses that Tzelafchad's estate be given to his daughters.

But following this ruling, another group of people approached Moses with their own petition. These were the tribal heads of Menasseh, Tzelafchad's tribe. Their argument went like this: if Tzelafchad's portion is given to his daughters, what will happen if they marry men from another tribe? Their children, whose tribal identity will follow that of their fathers', will inherit the Tzelafchad estate. We will then have Reubenite or Shimonite estates within the boundaries of the Menasseh territory, making a mishmash of our tribal homeland!

To this petition, G‑d responded with a rather practical solution: let Tzelafchad's daughters marry men from the tribe of Menasseh. Indeed, this became an across-the-board rule: any daughter who inherits land must marry only within her father's tribe, so that "no inheritance will be transferred from one tribe to another tribe, for each person of the tribes of the children of Israel shall cleave to his own inheritance" (Numbers 36:9).

What all this seems to indicate is that although the Jewish people are enjoined to be a "one people in the land" and to regard themselves "as one man, with one heart," this does not preclude the existence of distinct tribal identities within the Jewish nation. In fact, many today see the various communities within the Jewish people—Ashkenazic and Sephardic, Chassidic and non-Chassidic, etc.--as modern-day equivalents of the biblical "Tribes of Israel," and point to the biblical precedent as indication that the differences in customs, philosophy and lifestyle amongst these communities are legitimate, indeed desirable, expressions of the multi-tribal nature of the Jewish people.

There is, however, a sequel to the daughters-of-Tzelachad story and the tribal identity crisis they provoked. We are told that the rule that a daughter who inherits tribal lands should marry only within her father's tribe was only instituted for the first generation of Jews who settled the land under Joshua. Once the apportionment of the land was completed (a process which took fourteen years) and each tribe and family was securely settled on its territory and its family estate, the inter-tribal marriage ban was lifted. Apparently, at this point a little bit of tribal mishmash could be tolerated.

Furthermore, the day on which "the tribes of Israel where permitted to marry into each other" was proclaimed a national holiday. In fact, this holiday—the 15th of Av—is declared by the Mishnah to be one of the two greatest days of the year! (the other being none other than Yom Kippur). There are a number of reasons given as to the specialty of Av 15th, but this is one of them. In other words, the merging of tribes is not only tolerable, but something to be celebrated.

So what are we to make of all this? Is tribalism good or bad for the soul? How are we to weigh our loyalty to family, community and "tribe" against our role as a partner in the mission and destiny of the entirety of the Jewish people?

I'm not quite sure what it is, but there's a message here somewhere.