As we begin Sefer Bemidbar, the subject matter of the pesukim shifts to more technical details-a census of the Jewish people, and how they would divide into different camps when the Shechina would settle from traveling. Before any specifics are mentioned, Hashem tells Moshe and Aharon:
אִישׁ עַל דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִנֶּגֶד סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ
Each man by his degel, the otot of his father’s house, shall he camp- around the Ohel Moed they will camp. (במדבר ב:ב)
Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra delves straight into this less than clear description of the rationale of Bnai Yisrael’s camping, by simply answering that the “אות” on each “דגל” was the symbol of each four tribe group, mostly based off of Yaakov’s beracha at the end of Bereshit and a prophecy of Yechezkel (lions, eagles, foxes… almost like in Harry Potter).
While Ibn Ezra covers the words in the passuk, he doesn’t explain its deeper meaning. What is the significance of the Jewish People living “על דגלו לבית אבתם.” For a more profound understanding of this passuk, we will look at the deepest, yet most difficult, layer of Torah study: Kabbalah.
The Zohar (חלק ג- דף קיח:ב) refers to R’ Elazar who relates to our passuk by immediately quoting one in Yeshayahu:
שִׂמְחוּ אֶת יְרוּשָׁלִַם וְגִילוּ בָהּ כָּל אֹהֲבֶיהָ שִׂישׂוּ אִתָּהּ מָשׂוֹשׂ כָּל הַמִּתְאַבְּלִים עָלֶיהָ
Be happy, Jerusalem! Rejoice with her, all of her lovers. Be happy with her even with those who mourn her. (ישיעה סו:י)
The Zohar continues to speak about the importance of being happy in Jerusalem and about her, and how the world is only complete when the Jewish People live in our national capital, without any further mention of our passuk in Bemidar, leaving us to wonder what this whole tangent has to do with the encampment of the Jews in the desert. My chavruta, who has much more experience learning Kabbalah than I do, once told me that when the Zohar brings together ideas that do not seem at all related, it is up to us to figure out the connection. Here is how I believe Yishayahu’s prophecy could explain Am Yisrael’s camping pattern in the wilderness:
There are three criteria given in Bemidbar for how the Jews will encamp: “איש על דגלו,” then “באותת,” and finally “לבית אבתם.” It seems clear that the Zohar is interpreting our passuk as referring to the importance of Jews living together (“איש על דגלו”), following Torah and Halacha (“באותת”- the Torah and mitzvot are often referred to as ‘אות היא ביני וביניכם’), and living in the land of our forefathers (“בית אבתם”). Based on this, we can see that this passuk in Bemidbar, which on the surface specifies how the Jews will live in the desert is also hinting to a deeper meaning- how they will live once they enter Eretz Yisrael. According to the Zohar, this is the highest level of living, the true ideal. In essence, the Ba’al HaZohar tried to and succeeded at explaining a very technical and time-specific command to the Jews in Sinai, and managed to make it relevant and full of mussar to nearly every Jew in our times.
Skipping a little further in this section of the Zohar, we return to the theme of living in happiness in Jerusalem. A story is brought of R’ Abba who saw a Jewish man celebrating in Babylon and proceeded to confront him and kick him so he would stop dancing. When asked why he did this, R’Abba answered “when Jerusalem is in pain, how can you be celebrating?!” On the other hand, the Ba’al HaZohar teaches that whenever Jews are living in Eretz Yisrael, especially Jerusalem, not only are people happy, but Hashem is also happy. The unity between the joy on Earth and the joy beyond Earth creates something very powerful, similar to the joining of a man and woman when they get married- the greatest type of happiness as two entities who were made for each other finally come together as one.
It is very interesting that the Zohar uses this metaphor, as, on Motz’ei Shabbat, we will be celebrating Chag Hashavuot, the holiday which marks the “marriage” of the Jewish People to Hashem with the giving of the Torah.
For those who are not familiar with the process of Jewish marriage, Mesechet Kidushin teach that there are three steps to kiddushin: (1) אירוסין, engagement, when a man begins to connect with his fiancée by sanctifying her to him (“הרי את מקודשת לי…”) with an object worth at least a peruta; then (2) נתינת הטבעת, the giving of the ring by a husband to his wife, the קנין (acquisition) which officially makes these two people one; and finally (3) (כניסה לחופה (לרשות הבעל, the husband bringing his new wife into his home, sealing their marriage.
Anyone who is married knows that the months and days preceding a marriage are fun in a surreal and magical way. At the wedding, surrounded by friends, family and loved ones, the feeling of connection and love is beyond words. However, the highest level of love is after the wedding, when the new couple returns home and begins their new life together- this is when the simcha is most real.
Chazal famously compare the process of Yetziat Mitzrayim to marriage. When Hashem took our forefathers out of Egypt, He was, so to speak, completing the אירוסין, sanctifying His people. The deal was officially sealed, and we officially joined ourselves to G-d with the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, a book which, like the wedding ketuva, outlines their obligations to one another.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, based on the Zohar, Matan Torah was not really the end of the marriage process wedding the Jewish People to Hashem- there still remained the final step of כניסה לחופה, which Hashem fulfilled with the next generation of Jews by bringing them into Eretz Yisrael, His “רשות.” Only with this final step was our people’s marriage to Hashem sealed, and life could continue on together, in true happiness.
On Shavuot, we celebrate the joy as our people became married to Hashem. However, we cannot forget what R’ Abba very forcibly taught in the Zohar. True simcha can only happen when our people are in Eretz Yisrael- only there will the natural and supernatural both celebrate and create something even more powerful together. As we prepare to celebrate Chag HaShavuot, a celebration of our nation’s joining to Hashem, we must stop and ask ourselves; is the journey truly complete?
We must remember the lesson that Hashem, based on the Zohar’s interpretation, taught the Jewish People weeks after they first received the Torah- that the ideal way of life, our endgame, is to live “על דגלו באתת לבית אבתם.” Until we have entered Hashem’s Reshut, just as earlier Jews did in the time of Yeshoshua, we have not yet finalized our marriage with Hashem, and we cannot yet celebrate our union with Him, even on Shavuot. Only when Jews live together in Eretz Yisrael can there be the true simcha of our nation’s joining with our Creator, and then, the combined happiness of the heavens and the Earth will surpass even the national high of Ma’amad Har Sinai.
With Hashem’s help, we will all merit to enter Hashem’s Reshut and achieve our nation’s true Union with Him, very, very soon.