Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Walk Article-Bamidbar



Rabbi David Walk


            Flags are a reality of modern countries.  When one walks by the United Nations buildings on First Avenue in New York City, it's the waving of one hundred ninety-three flags which first attracts attention. Then it's all those scary looking guys with wires in their ears, but I digress.  Flag waving can be inspiring and moving at the appropriate occasion like opening ceremonies at the Olympics, but dismal, annoying and even scary at the wrong time like at militant rallies.  Flags can be used to mask hypocrisy like Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy claiming to not believe in the United States of America, but pompously riding a horse while waving a massive American flag.  The one thing about flags is that they rarely go unnoticed or ignored.  They draw a reaction.  So, we have to analyze the significance of the flags or banners which figure so prominently in the camp arrangement and desert marches of the Tribes of Israel as recorded in this week's Torah reading.

             In the parsha we, of course, record the census which gives this book its English name, Numbers.  But afterwards the layout of the camp is described.  In that description it states:  The Israelites are to camp under their respective banners beside the flags of their ancestral houses. They are to camp around the tent of meeting at a distance from it (Numbers 2:2).  Then it records that the four sides of the camp are designated by the banners of the dominant tribe on each side.  They are Yehuda, Yisaschar, Reuvain, and Ephraim.  We would like to know what the twelve tribal flags looked like, and that, like so many other Torah issues, is an argument.  Many authorities insist that these were simple standards with only a designated color to identify the tribe and keep the camp and march in order.  There is a Midrash which claims that the colors were those seen in the flames over Mt. Sinai.  But others insist that each ensign had a symbol or emblem depicting a significant characteristic of the tribe.  This may come from the fact that the word I translated as banner is otot, which can mean sign or symbol.

            Anyway the Midrash (Bamidbar Raba, 2:7) records the assumed symbol for each tribe:  Reuvain, mandrake plants; Shimon, a tower of Shechem; Yehudah, a lion; Yisaschar, sun and moon; Zevulun; a ship, Dan, a snake; Gad, a tent; Naftali, a deer; Asher, an olive tree; Efraim, an ox; Menashe, a wild ox; and Binyamin, a wolf.  The background colors for the banners were the colors of the precious stone which represented each tribe in the breast plate of the Cohen Gadol.  But the question is:  Why is this important?  What can we learn from these banners which we can apply to our own lives?

            Reb Kalonymus Kalman Epstein (Maor v'Shemesh, Cracow, 1753-1823) explains that to be strong and successful, the holy people of Israel must be bound by a strong and powerful bond in absolute unity, in love, and fraternity, and fellowship.  However, each individual must contribute based upon their talents and strengths.  So, each tribe had a banner which described that tribe's contribution to the nation.  So, too, individuals must recognize their talents R. Kalonymus sees the value of the banners, in that they highlight the worth and value of each member of Israel. Every person has a metaphoric banner flying over their head, and one must be aware of their own banner, one must study it, and must fashion their lifestyle in accord with it.  To be true to one's potential.  A member of the camp sees the banners as establishing two complementary senses of awareness.  First there is the feeling of belonging to a vital entity both greater and more awesome than the individual alone.  Then there develops a sensation that the individual has a unique talent to contribute to the nation which the resident knows deep down makes the nation better, stronger and more robust  It's an energizing sensation.

            Rabbi Kalonymus adds another comment based on a Midrash (Exodus Raba 29:2).  At Mount Sinai thousands of angels descended from heaven and each became a banner signifying their heavenly role.  The Jews proclaimed that they too should become banners.  The Rebbe explains that at that moment every Jew saw their proper place in the warp and woof of the national fabric and understood their unique contribution to the greatness of God's people.  Thus the banners represented a continuation of the experience at Sinai, and that's something we should want for our own communities.

            In a modern comment, Rav Yehdua Amital OB"M former Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etziyon also referred to the Midrash about Mount Sinai.  He explained that there are two lessons to be garnered from the presence of the banners.  First when one sees their banner there is a sense of being home.  This warm and engendering sense is important because everyone needs a supportive environment, no matter how successful.  Rav Amital talked about how important it was to give new students a sense of being at home in the Yeshiva.  He added that new olim to Israel also needed that sense of security extended to them.

            Secondly Rav Amital suggested that a flag also gives the individual a sense of mission and goal.  The flag awakens an enthusiasm for fulfilling one's own goals and gives a sense of purpose within the appropriate niche.  This diminishes jealousy and dissatisfaction with one's role and position.  Everyone should feel happy and fulfilled performing the task best fitted to their talents and aptitude.  We all have something unique to contribute.  So, why be interested in another's role?

            Rav Amital concludes:  The banners teach us two lessons. The first is that in order for a person to thrive one has to feel at home. In order for this to occur, everyone must welcome visitors and foreigners in our midst. The second lesson is that every person must strive to realize and bring to fruition their own special contribution.  As Rebbe Nachman used to say:  Everyone is great at something.  Now put it to use for the common good.