Everyone needs an identity.Everyone needs an identity that allows others to know who he is. Everyone needs an identity that reflects and reminds the individual himself who and what he or she is.
At first, our association with family defines our identity. “I am So and So the child of So and So.” “I am the oldest child, the youngest child, the middle child, or the only child.”
During the early years (till about 30 or so) our identity, our sense of self,is more the product of personal need than personal responsibility. “Feed me because I am hungry. Hug me because I need comfort. Protect me because I am afraid. Make me laugh because I am sad. Entertain me because I am bored.” There is very little awareness of the sharing and giving that is the foundation of the family from which our first identities are gleaned.
The next stage of the identification process is our association with friends and peers. “My best friend is So and So.” I go to school at Yeshivas So and So.” “We are going to So and So’s house.” “Hey Mom and Dad, everyone failed So and So’s exam.” “But So and So is going, doing, wearing, driving, eating,piercing, rebelling etc.!” (Don’t forget the whiny-resentful-begging-angry tone of voice) During that stage of identity development our sense of self is defined by what everyone else is doing and thinking. We take ownership of those views but they are really not our own. They do not necessarily reflect our true personalities and commitments. Eventually, the journey of self-discovery matures into a process of personal introspection, choice of interests and careers, and a myriad of life experiences. Of course, family,friends, and associates remain of paramount importance but their influence should only be the setting and contrast for the discovery of personal purpose and mission.
In the end, every part of the identification process profoundly affects who and what we are. The healthy ego integrates it all into a personal metamorphosis and evolution while the unhealthy ego flounders in confusion and self-doubt.
This week’s Parsha should have been the final stage in the development of our national identity. It should have heralded the last few months of our stay in the desert, and the final preparations for entering the Promised Land. One year had transpired since the exodus from Egypt, and the Bnai Yisroel could have been ready to embrace their responsibilities as G-d’s kingdom of Priests and holy nation. All of the organizational details recorded in the Parsha are therefore significant for understanding who we each were and who we were collectively supposed to be.
Parshas Bamidbar is also known as Parshas Digalim “the Chapter of Flags or Banners. “G-d spoke” saying: The Bnai Yisroel should camp with each person near the flag bearing his paternal family insignia a specified distance from the Ohel Moed.” (2:1-2) The Digalim – banners appear to have been an integral component in defining the individual and collective identities of the persons (each person), tribes (paternal family insignia) and nation (Ohel Moed ).
The Medresh explains the background for the Digalim.
“At the time of Mattan Torah, the Bnai Yisroel had a collective vision of G-d’s presence descending from heaven on His cellestial throne accompanied by 22,000angels. (The same number as Shevet Layvie.) The 22,000 angels were organized around G-d’s presence in specific units identified by Digalim ” flags. Upon envisioning this awesome celestial spectacle, the Bnai Yisroel cried out, “Oh “That we too would be gathered under banners and flags like the angels! As the verse in Shir Hashirim 5:10 says,” “And His banner over me was love.” G-d answered, “Just as the angels are distinguished by flags, so will you be likewise distinguished” Therefore, G-d commanded Moshe and Aharon to arrange the Bnai Yisroel around the Mishkan in the same manner that the angels had been arranged around His throne identified by individual flags.
The verse in Shir Hashirim associates the desire of the Bnai Yisroel to emulate the angels and be positioned around the Mishkan with flags as an expression of G-d’s Ahavah love. How were the Digalim an expression of G-d’s Ahavah?
The Medresh describes the different flags of each tribe as artistic renditions of Yaakov’s final blessings to his 12 sons, or Moshe’s blessings at the end of the Torah.
Reuven’s flag was red (odem-ruby) with a picture of a mandrake plant of the kind brought to his mother.
Shimon’s flag was green (petedeh-topaz) with a picture of the city of Shechem that he helped destroy.
Levi’s flag was tri-colored, red, white, and black (bareketh-a multi-colored crystal) with a picture of the Urim V’Tumim-the breastplate of the Kohain Gadol.
Yehuda’s flag was sky-blue (nofekh-garnet or carbuncle) depicting a lion. As the verse states, “Yehudah is a young lion” Ber. 49:9)
Yissachar’s flag was dark-blue (sapir-sapphire) with a picture of the sun and the moon. The descendents of Yissachar were experts in astronomy and determining the calendar.
Zevulan’s flag was white (yahalom-diamond or pearl) depicting a ship.The tribe of Zevulan were merchants who ventured across the seas doing business. They were able to support their own tribe as well as provide for the tribe of Yissachar who spent their time studying and teaching Torah.
Dan’s flag was opal colored (leshem-opal) depicting a snake. As Yaakov described Dan, “Let Dan be as a snake”
Gad’s flag was part white and black although his stone was turquoise(shevo- agateor turquoise). It depicted the outline of an army camp since Yaakov blessed him to be victorious in battle.
Naftali’s flag was off red in color (ahelemah-amethyst) depicting a deer.
Asher’s flag was emerald colored ( Tarshish-beryl) depicting a tree.
Yoseph’s flag was deep black (shoham-onyx) depicting the two princes, Menashe and Ephrayim and the capital city of Miyzrayim.
Ephrayim’s flag had the picture of an ox because Yehoshua came from Ephrayim and Moshe referred to Yehoshua as an ox. “His glory is like a first-born ox.” (Divarim 33:17)Yehoshua was the â€œfirst-bornâ€ referred to in the Pasuk.
Menashe’s flag depicted the form of aurochs (re’em). This referred to Gideon (one of the Judges) who descended from Menashe. Moshe prophesied about Gideon when he said, “and his horns are the horns of an aurochs.” (Divarim33:17)
Binyamin’s flag was multicolored. (his stone was a yeshefeth-jasper). Depicted on the flag was a wolf. “Binyamin is a vicious wolf” (Ber. 49:27)
The blessings conveyed by Yaakov Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu were far more than the hopes and dreams of a loving father and teacher. The blessings were intended to focus each Shevet – tribe on their unique destiny and service. There were certain services that were common to all the tribes and certain contributions that were the province of individual tribes. The blessings identified each tribe’s intended contribution.
The overall mandate of the Bnai Yisroel was for them to be a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation. Collectively and individually that mandate defined who and what they were. However, as in all things, there must be an organized division of labor with each component of the whole working in concert with each other to accomplish the collective goal.
The simplest way to describe the goal of the Bnai Yisroel, and by extension, the rest of humanity, is “to serve G-d.” Therefore, individual purpose and mission must be defined in relation to that goal. Therefore, the blessings of Yaakov and Moshe that identified each Shevet’s individual and collective contribution to the whole of the Jewish nation demanded that individuals and tribes subjugate themselves in service to G-d, as defined by G-d.
At the time of Mattan Torah the Bnai Yisroel had attained the one-time in history designation of, “As one person with one heart.” They were nationally,tribally, familiarly, and individually committed to serving G-d as defined by G-d.
There are two basic motivations for total commitment and subjugation to G-d- fear and love. At first, the Bnai Yisroel had no choice but to be fearful. The year preceding Mattan Torah displayed G-d’s awesome power and judicious might as He destroyed the evil and protected the innocent.Therefore, when offered the choice of serving or not serving, the Jews individually and collectively opted for service.
Service from fear is service, but service from love is not just service, it is love. Of course the recipient in both instances may receive the same service or product; however, in the second type of service, the service is more than the simple service. The service is a reinforcement and advancement of the relationship between the giver and the recipient. (Think parent and child)G-d’s giving is always a service of love. He gives without ulterior motive of receiving in return. G-d gives because that is what benefits us, not Him!Therefore, we must attempt to emulate G-d and serve Him as an expression of our love, without ulterior motives of fear or receiving returns on our service.(See Pirkei Avos 1:3)
Angelic service is pure loving service. Barriers do not exist between the angels and G-d; therefore, their service to G-d is the pure expression of doing the will of another because the other asks for it, without ulterior motive.
When the Jews were granted the vision of G-d descending surrounded by the 22,000 angels arranged in units and identified by flags, the Bnai Yisroel saw far more than a vision of the Shechina (G-d’s presence). The Jews perceived the purity of loving service that resulted from total subjugation to the will of G-d. They immediately cried out, “We too desire such service! We too desire such clarity of purpose! We too desire to be shown our individual and collective purposes in our service to G-d and our reason for being created”
Therefore, when Shlomo Hamelech(King Solomon) in Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) portrayed the love between G-d and the Bnai Yisroel He stated, “And His banner over me was love.”
G-d granted the Bnai Yisroel their wish. He arranged them in the manner of the angels and gave them flags that identified their individual destinies.
(Notes: Our Achdus vs. G-d’s; retaining individuality and all relationships;covering hair; Why before Shevuoth? The stones and Dvar G-d; Ke’ish Echad; Yaakov’s first prophecy- the stones!; history of Yaakov’s burial avoiding the jealousy maintaining the Achdus; arrangement around Yaakov (Sam-tem Kidushin around the Mishkan around the Shechina purpose of the Am; In the Midbarvs. at the Yarden-from middle to front-the development of our identity 40 years Kollel, Shemitah, Yovel; Pesach and independence vs. Yerushalayim and Shevuoth -all Hahar Hazeh! Shir Hashirim zeh omed achar Kosleinu Shechina and Kottel.)
Copyright © 2001 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.