There’s something remarkable about flags. A simple wooden pole, with a designed fabric attached, can immediately inspire within us intense feelings of camaraderie or revulsion. Friend or foe is often decided based on what is depicted in that design. While flags carry such strong associative connections for us today, their connective capabilities were clear even in the times of our ancestors in the wilderness. “אִ֣ישׁ עַל־דִּגְל֤וֹ “בְאֹתֹת֙ לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֔ם יַחֲנ֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל, we read in this week’s parsha, “The Children of Israel shall encamp, each by his division, with the flagstaffs of their father’s house” (Bamidbar 2:2).
Tellingly, this “tribal” mentality is brought back into the national consciousness at the beginning of the parsha in which we prepare to re-engage with the world after an extended encampment at Har Sinai. “Na’aseh Venishma Amru K’echad”, we are taught; while receiving revelation at the mountain, the nation was as one body with one voice, happily declaring their intent to follow God’s word.
Bamidbar marks a significant transition in our identity. It was relatively easy to think and act as one while living in a vacuum, removed from all outside influences. This cohesion is much harder to maintain, however, upon our re-entry into the flawed world in which we live.
Our parsha teaches that uniformity is not sustainable once we leave the mountain. If unity of thought and mind is the barometer by which we measure our success as a nation, our national project would have been declared a failure from the moment that we began to pack our bags in preparation for leaving Har Sinai.
We are commanded to divide up into our camps, into the “flags” by which we mark our closeness to some and relative distance from others. “וְחָנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ עַל־מַֽחֲנֵהוּ וְאִישׁ עַל־דִּגְלוֹ לְצִבְאֹתָם” “The children of Israel encamped, each person according to his camp and each person according to the flag of his division” (Bamidbar 1:52).
The flags marking the identity of each subset of the Israelite people, however, are not like other flags. Rashi teaches that
כָּל דֶּגֶל יִהְיֶה לוֹ אוֹת, מַפָּה צְבוּעָה תְלוּיָה בוֹ, צִבְעוֹ שֶׁל זֶה לֹא כְצִבְעוֹ שֶׁל זֶה, צֶבַע כָּל אֶחָד כְּגוֹן אַבְנוֹ הַקְּבוּעָה בַחֹשֶׁן וּמִתּוֹךְ כָּךְ יַכִּיר כָּל אֶחָד אֶת דִּגְלוֹ
“Every division shall have its own flag pole, with a colored flag hanging upon it. The color of each flag was unique, different from that of any other tribe. Each flag corresponded to the color of that tribe’s stone in the High Priest’s breastplate. And by this means everybody will be able to recognize his flag” (Rashi Bamidbar 2:2).
Each flag was distinct, yet each was critically important. The Kohen Gadol could not enter the Holy of Holies missing one stone from his choshen, and the Mishkan could not be moved if one tribe was missing from the encampment. What enabled the Israelites to survive in the desert and eventually reach the land of Israel was their acceptance of difference within the camp, a demand for unity rather than uniformity.
The flags of our parsha represent divisions within the camp, but these flags ultimately weave together a tapestry of colors, of perspectives, which build upon and add vibrancy and beauty to the collective. Easier said than done, of course, but this is the Torah’s demand. May we all work to see its fulfillment.
This essay is part of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s weekly parsha wisdom. Each week, graduates of YCT share their thoughts on the parsha, refracted through the lens of their rabbinates and the people they are serving, with all of us.