The pressures of conformity can chain us down. When what we want conflicts with what the masses normally want, when our path seems to be paved differently than others, what do we do next? For many, the answer is subconscious and intuitive: Get back into reality and leave your idealistic dreams in the realm of imagination. While such guidance will avoid the stress, fear, and discomfort of challenging our norms, it forces us to suppress our inner greatness. In Parshat Bamidbar, the Torah signals the importance of living a life authentic to our true essence.
As Bnei Yisrael travel in the desert heading toward Eretz Yisrael (The Land of Israel), Hashem gives Moshe various instructions about the people’s encampment. One such instruction was regarding the 12 shevatim (tribes) of Bnei Yisrael and their formation when they would make camp. Hashem says, “Bnei Yisrael shall camp, each with his insignia, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance” (Bamidbar 2:2). The direction seems trivial, but its deeper meaning is quite significant.
In Mei HaShiloach on Bamidbar, Rav Mordechai Leiner says that the pasuk’s (verse) mention of “each with his insignia” teaches that, in the eyes of Hashem, each shevet is equally honorable. While their roles and responsibilities vary, each shevet of Bnei Yisrael has its unique flag and insignia, its unique way of bringing Hashem’s light into the world (Vol. II, Bamidbar 2).
Rav Leiner understands this pasuk to be something much more than Hashem’s guidance for the physical encampment of the different shevatim of Bnei Yisrael. Instead, Hashem is reassuring each shevet that jealousy of another would be foolish because Hashem finds honor in all that they do, even if it’s different from the path of others. Rabbeinu Bahya’s reading furthers this idea by extending it beyond the immediate case of the shevatim.
Rabbeinu Bahya offers a novel reading of the pasuk, saying that otot — translated as “insignia” — relates to the term elsewhere of ot nafsho (desire of his soul). With this understanding, the pasuk would read, “Bnei Yisrael shall camp, each with the desire of his soul, under the banners of their ancestral house.”
Aligning Rav Leiner’s thought on the pasuk with Rabbeinu Bahya’s translation of otot, we see that Hashem was telling Moshe a timeless idea about individual identity. Each person should encamp with their shevet and its flag, not their neighbor’s and not their friend’s, their own shevet. This means that each person is actually obligated to follow their soul’s desires, the inner calling of their truest will, even if that is uncomfortable or deemed strange. Most importantly, when doing so, people should not compare and contrast their different callings, for Hashem decides that each form is honored and valued — any rationalization about why one is better than the other is flawed and futile.
Why are people so afraid of living their lives as themselves? If a passion is unpopular, it’s kept hidden; if a career path is unconventional, it’s avoided; if a lifestyle is outlandish, it’s considered invalid. If we spend all our time trying to live our lives like everyone else lives theirs, then who will live ours? Hashem shows us in Parshat Bamidbar that we all must find our own banners — the most authentic desire of our souls — and sit with our camp. We are each imbued with a special insignia, a tapestry designed exclusively for us. Will we don it with pride or hide it with shame?