The Israelites shall camp, each man on his flag, [according] to the signs of his father’s house, opposite and around the tent of meeting (mishkan) shall they camp. (Num. 2:2)
There is a puzzling Midrash (Bamidbar Raba, 2) on this verse. The Midrash relates that the Jews at mount Sinai saw 22,000 angels arranged by flags. The Jews then had a craving for flags, and as a response to this desire God commanded the Jews to camp according to tribal flags in the verse above. What does it mean that the angels were arranged by flags? Why did Bnei Yisrael crave to have flags as well?
In order to answer this question, we need to understand something about these biblical angels. Each angel had a specific purpose, and no one angel had two assignments (see Rashi to Gen 18:2). A flag is more than a mere piece of cloth, rather it is a sign of identity that represents a national ethos. When the Jews saw that angels had flags, which represented their defined jobs and purpose, they craved to have flags as well. The Jews wanted to be more than just a group of people, they had a desire to have meaning in their lives
But there is more to this Midrash than just the idea of having a defined purpose and a specific goal. Previously at Har Sinai the Jewish people had received the torah and already entered into a covenant with the Almighty. They were promised to be a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’. Was this not a sufficient purpose? Why were flags necessary at this point?
At Sinai, the Jews were ‘like one person with one heart’. The entire nation meshed into a single identity to receive the torah. But Sinai was not an everyday occurrence, and the idea of ‘one person, one heart’ was not a sustainable model. In addition to a national ethos, there also needs to be a healthy amount of sectarianism to create a thriving society. By being part of a smaller group, the individual is empowered, because he has a more prominent role (just as one fifth is more significant than one tenth). If there is a lack of sectarianism, the common man will feel like a small and insignificant part of the nation.
The Jews saw that the angels didn’t just have one flag for everyone, rather they were divided into many groups, each with their own flags. The Jews also wanted to have proper tribal identities to complement the central mission of the Jewish people. (It should also be noted that the tribal camps surrounded the mishkan, which represented the central mission of the nation as a whole.) Each tribe got their own unique blessings at the end of the torah, because each one had its own particular duty to fulfill. If we recognize the importance of having various groups working toward a common goal, it can lead to a different perspective on how we build our society. Israel is a radically diverse country, and this idea can help capitalize on this diversity and realize its potential.