Flags are on the news and on our minds this week. Flags also play a prominent role in the book of Bamidbar. Parshat Naso continues to describe the layout of the camp of Israel, where the people were situated according to their standard (degalo), under the signs (otot) of their ancestral house. What is the significance of the emphasis on the flags?
Biblical interpreters differ on whether there were 12 flags or whether the tribes were united under four flags. Rashi suggests that each tribe had a different color flag which corresponded to the breastplate of the Kohen, and the different colors highlighted the diversity of the nation of Israel. Other commentaries view the flags as an expression of military pride and prowess. Abarbanel – who understood politics and diplomacy well – explains that the tribes were placed next to each other and traveled together in four groups. Judah’s group (whose symbol was a lion) was placed at the head and Dan’s (whose symbol was an eagle) was in the rear, because they were the strongest and would deter the enemy from attacking.
The layout of the flags also surrounded the mishkan, drawing on the holiness of the Sheckhinah (Divine Presence). This is reinforced by a midrash which teaches that the flags originated at Matan Torah. When God descended on Mount Sinai the people saw myriads of angels with different banners. They too longed to have their own flags as a symbol of God’s love for them, hence, they were arranged by flags in the desert.
Flags should symbolize national pride alongside holiness and devotion, not hate and destruction. May we continue to fly our Israeli flag from a place of pride, strength and love rather than from hatred. May we not have to see flags of hate here. Finally, may we experience the love of the banner of Torah this Shavuot, just as Israel experienced at Mount Sinai.