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You Brought Out the Flags: Now What?

The Israelites did all that the Lord had commanded Moses; they encamped by their divisions, and so did they journey each man with his family, according to his father’s house. [Numbers 2:34]

It is a rare moment when the Israelites do everything they are commanded by G-d in the desert. And it is just as rare that the Torah, in this week’s portion of Bamidbar, records this achievement. But here the Jews were flawless: They kept to their tribes and families, complete with a flag and coat of arms.

Pardon me, but is this such a big deal? If you were in the Sinai Desert, you’d stay close to your mom and dad just so you could eat breakfast and have snacks on the trek through the sand. As for a flag: With millions of people around you, you’d need an identifying mark in case you fell behind.

But Sinai wasn’t an ordinary desert. The Midrash says the Israelite journey to their land was tracked by many nations, including Egypt. The nations were impressed by the discipline and devotion of these former slaves. They watched them from afar as the Jews received the Torah on Mount Sinai, something the gentiles had refused.

Now the Israelites were moving purposefully through the desert. They heard the shouts of the gentiles nearby:

“Come with us and we’ll make you rich.”

“Come with us and we’ll make you famous.”

“Cross over and you’ll be our leaders.”

And the Jews turned a deaf ear.

G-d especially appreciated the flags made by the Israelites. Every nation has a flag, but these were special. The gentiles did not inspire the Israelite flag, rather the angels. On Mount Sinai, the Jews saw tens of thousands of angels flying with flags. The mortals below said, “We want that for ourselves.”

The Almighty had a great love when they made flags so that they would be recognizable and counted, for this is love for Israel…So, did the Almighty made 70 nations, and from all he did not find any enjoyment except for Israel. [Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 3]

Flags can be used for lots of things: They can be waved; hung on poles; or they can be trampled and even burned in protest.

The Midrash provides another use: the flag is a partition. It serves to separate the holder from the others. The flag symbolizes a mission that outsiders don’t share.

Most of the Parsha is an exercise for numbers: A census that wasn’t really needed. But G-d wanted to count the faithful who carried a flag for the Almighty and His Torah.

But in the end a flag is a symbol. A nation needs much more than that: It needs leaders. G-d wanted each of the 12 tribes to have their own representatives. They would care for the constituency and ensure observance of the divine commandments.

Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers’ houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names. [Numbers 1:2]

Although most commentators accept this translation, it is not accurate. The literal translation is: “Raise the head of each congregation of the Children of Israel to their families…”

Moses Ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, sides with the literal and makes a significant point: G-d is hinting to Moses that the leaders must be raised above the people. They must lead the people by example. They must be the model of piety. They cannot be ignorant nor apathetic.

If they merit, they will rise to greatness, and if they don’t merit, they will all die. [Ramban on Numbers 1:2]

Neville Chamberlain is known as the father of appeasement, the policy that gave Hitler what he wanted in the late 1930s in the hope that the German dictator would eventually be satiated. Announcing that he had achieved “peace for our time,” Chamberlain agreed to the German takeover of Czechoslovakia, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and when that didn’t stop the ravenous fuhrer the English gentleman promised to protect Greece, Poland and Romania. All of these promises proved empty.

At first, World War II did not faze Chamberlain, who still enjoyed a massive majority in parliament. The Conservative prime minister still thought that Germany would take time to digest Poland. But in May 1940, Hitler moved to the next phase of conquest — the invasion of Belgium, Holland and finally France. On May 10, the day German soldiers raced through the Low Countries, Chamberlain resigned and agreed that his worst enemy, Winston Churchill, succeed.

It wasn’t an easy decision. The prime minister had preferred Foreign Secretary Edward Wood, known as Lord Halifax, still devoted to reaching a deal with Hitler and who now warned that Britain could never defeat the Reich. But Chamberlain, after a stormy Cabinet meeting went with Churchill, a failure in the military, hopeless in business and hated in the House of Commons and even by US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But unlike everybody else, Churchill consistently thundered that Hitler was intent on war and that appeasing him would only make him stronger.

Chamberlain did something incredible for a political leader: He admitted that he and his policy were wrong. After he stepped down, he served loyally under Churchill for several months until he died of cancer in November 1940. His resignation, more than anything else, saved Britain. The new prime minister sent Halifax to far-off America.

Yitzhak Brick is widely regarded as one of the greatest military minds in Israel. For years, the retired general crisscrossed the country warning of disaster from complacency and corruption by the General Staff and the government. He pointed to serious deficiencies in training, equipment as well as the false doctrine that Israel could manage conflicts without winning them. The professionals smirked.

Since the Hamas invasion of Israel on Oct. 7, Brick met six times with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to discuss war strategy and Israel’s options. At first, Brick recalled, Netanyahu seemed to be listening. No more. Right now, Brick said, the embattled premier thinks only of his power — regardless of the consequences for the people.

“If Bibi, [Defense MInister Yoav] Gallant], [Chief of Staff] Herzi Halevi and their followers remain in power, the State of Israel will tumble to its end. They are bringing them down to tragedy. [Brick interview on Radio Tzafon. May 26, 2024. אלוף יצחק בריק נגד בנימין נתניהו: “האיש ירד מהפסים” | חדשות מעריב (maariv.co.il)]

So, as the north burns and Kiryat Shemona comes under daily missile and rocket attack, the patriots among us don blue and white and wave flags. This, they explain, is meant to mark the victory of 1967 — cold comfort for the hundreds of thousands of our homeless and huddled brothers.

In the end, the Israelite leadership in our Torah portion was replaced: They had become venal and corrupt, and G-d got rid of them and tried out a new bunch of fellows.

We sure can use that divine intervention today.

About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.
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