Sefer Bemidbar opens with the story of a census of the nation taken after a year has passed during its trek in the desert. The storyline then moves on to a description of the organization of the tribal encampment around the nation’s sacred space, the Tent of Assembly. Each tribe was organized around its tribal flag: “And the Lord spoke to Moshe and Aharon, saying, ‘Every man by his banner (al diglo) with standards (otot) for his father’s house, shall the Israelites camp opposite, round the Tent of Meeting they shall camp.’” (Numbers 2:1-2)
One can imagine that each tribe saw in its tribal identity and its flag a source of pride and identity. The following midrash takes up this theme with a surprising message. In order to understand it, we need to pay attention to the textual issue in the above verse which prompted it. The sages noted that the verse mentions two words which signify flags, the first one being “degel” and the second being “ot”. Since, in their eyes, one mention would have been sufficient, that leaves the second word open for interpretation.
The author of this midrash was inspired by the fact that the word “ot” also means “miracle”. Consequently, the midrash cited below asserts that there is something special about the Jews that seems to compel the nations of the world to want to win them over and assimilate them to their ranks. The midrash weaves this interaction into a dialogue between the Jews and the nations of the world. (In order to make it easier to follow, I have marked the dialogue in bold letters.)
‘Every man by his banner (al diglo) with standards (otot) for his father’s house’ (Numbers 2:2) This verse is to be understood with reference to this verse: ‘Who is this who shines like the dawn, fair as moon, [dazzling as the sun, daunting as what looms on high]’ (Song of Songs 6:10)– holy and great were Israel with their flags (ot) [remember, “ot” here denotes a miraculous nature] “, and all of the nations of the world looked upon them, astonished and said: ‘Who is this who shines like the dawn?’ The nations of the world continued: ‘Turn, turn, O Shulamite’ (Song of Songs 7:1) What is meant by the words – ‘Turn, turn’? Cling to us, come be with us, and we will make you rulers, government officials and government ministers. ‘Turn, so we may behold (nehezeh) you’ (Ibid) – The word ‘nehezeh’ can mean – ‘an important position’. And Israel replied to them: ‘What do you see in the Shulamite?’ (Ibid) What greatness are you offering us – ‘To dance in the camp’ (Ibid)? Can you possibly give us as great an honor as that which our God has given us in the desert, ‘every man by his [tribal] banner’?… In addition, when we sin, God forgives us… (adapted from Tanhuma Bemidbar 11)
This 6th-7th midrash from Eretz Yisrael reflects a situation Jews have faced time and again over the past two thousand years. The nations of the world have pulled out all the stops to make the Jews assimilate and disappear, sometimes through promises, sometimes through coercion of all sorts. The answer of this midrash is for Jews to take pride in who they and to “rally around the flag”. [As a final note, the last line of the midrash “In addition, when we sin, God forgives us” is likely an indication of who was harassing the Jews when th ismidrash was composed. I will leave it to you to figure that one out for yourselves.]