Rallying Round the Mishkan Is a Prerequisite for Rallying Round the Flags
Sefer Bamidbar is referred to in the Medrash as the “Chomesh HaPekudim” (Book of Numbers). The sefer begins with the census of Klal Yisrael in Parshas Bamidbar and it (sort of) ends in Parshas Pinchas at the end of the 40 years in the desert, also with a census.
Following the enumeration of Klal Yisrael here at the beginning of Bamidbar, the Torah says: “Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: But you shall not count the tribe of Levi, and you shall not take their census among the Children of Israel.” (Bamidbar 1:48-49) Rashi explains that this was because they are the “legion of the King” and because a decree was to go forth that all who were counted would die in the wilderness (as a result of the aveira of the Meraglim – the sin of the Spies) and He did not want the Bnei Levi, who did not err with the Egel Hazahav (Golden Calf) to be included in that decree.
Then Hashem further commands Moshe: “And you shall appoint the Levites over the Mishkan Ha’Eidus, over all of its keylim (utensils) and over everything that belongs to it. They shall carry the Mishkan and all its keylim and they shall serve it; and they shall encamp around the Mishkan.” (Bamidbar 1:50) The Leviim were given a specific job: “When the Mishkan journeys, the Levites shall take it down, and when the Mishkan encamps, the Levites shall erect it, and an alien who approaches shall be put to death.” (Bamidbar 1:51)
Then the very next topic is the “Degalim” (flags). Each of the four camps contained three shevatim (tribes) within them and each shevet had its own flag. The Leviim were not included in any of these camps, but rather they were assigned the encampment immediately surrounding the Mishkan. Finally, after discussing all of the shevatim, their leaders, their encampment locations, and their population, at long last – by Chamishi – the Children of Levi are counted, including an enumeration of the families of Levi, the population of each family, and an assignment of the specific job of each Levitical family (who carried the Aron, who carried the boards of the Mishkan, who carried the keylim, etc., etc.)
This seems like a very strange way to write this parsha. Why insert the commandment to not count the Leviim and describe their jobs in the middle of the counting? If we would edit (chas v’Shalom) this parsha, we would have said “Don’t do it like that!” First finish counting the people. Then after the people are counted (obviously without Shevet Levi because they are not mentioned among the 12 shevatim whose numbers are specified), specify the details of the flag formations and how they traveled. Then after that, introduce and say “Now count the Leviim” and list the specific jobs of every part of Shevet Levi. Why does the Torah insert the commandment not to count the Leviim and describe their jobs in the middle of the counting? First finish the counting and the Degalim. Then say to count the Leviim and list their jobs. What is the point of inserting pesukim 48-54 at the end of the first perek?
The sefer Shemen haTov cites a beautiful observation here by Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky. The first perek of Sefer Bamidbar occurs on the first day of the second month of the second year, counting from yetzias (the exodus from) Mitzrayim (Egypt). They have been travelling on the road for about a year! Why didn’t Hashem tell Klal Yisrael as soon as they left Mitzrayim how they should travel? This business of dividing the people into camps and setting up a system of flags for each shevet should have been spelled out in Sefer Shmos! Why did Hashem wait an entire year before spelling out these basic details of their travel configuration?
Rav Yaakov says that the flags were a wonderful innovation (as we shall soon see). However, the phenomenon of tribal flags divides everyone into different groups. It indicates that everyone is different. “I am somewhat different from you. I am in this camp and I have this color flag. You are in that camp and you have that color flag.” This can lead to competition, chauvinism, and an “I am better than you” attitude.
To just give an example of this: There are five branches of the United States military service – the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force, and the Coast Guard. (This was before the creation of the United States Space Force.) Each one of these branches has its own flag. Is there competition between the branches? You bet there is! Is there a certain chauvinism that ‘we are better than you’? Yes, there is! At West Point, on the roof of one of the buildings, there is a large sign which reads: Beat Navy! This is standard procedure. Ask an Air Force pilot “Who are better pilots – the Air Force or the Navy”? The Air Force person will say “Of course the Air Force pilot. That is our job!” Ask a Navy pilot the same question. He will tell you “Anybody can land on a regular runway. Try landing on an aircraft carrier that is bouncing up and down in the water! We are the real pilots!”
Everyone is fighting for the good of the United States of America, but the Navy holds that the Air Force can’t fly and the Marines hold that the Army can’t fight and so on.
Rav Kamenetsky says – the only reason the military can exist like this is because at the end of the day, they are all fighting for the good of the United States. There is something central that binds them all together.
Similarly, he says, the reason that when they left Mitzrayim they couldn’t be divided into groups with flags is because they did not yet have such a central unifying entity to rally around. That was all true until they built the Mishkan. Once they built the Mishkan, which traveled in the midst of the camp, the Mishkan became the glue that held everyone together. “Yes, you have your job and I have my job but at the end of the day, we need to cooperate.” There is a higher purpose over here that unifies everyone who travels around the Mishkan.
Therefore, there could only be division by camp and flags in the second year after they left Mitzrayim, after the Mishkan was already constructed and erected and had taken its central position in the midst of the camp. By that time, they understood that the Mishkan unified them all.
Those are the words of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky. The Shemen HaTov writes that this is why the Torah inserts the reminder to Klal Yisrael that they have within them a Shevet Levi, who need to be counted by themselves and whose job is to supervise the assembly and disassembly of the Mishkan, into the middle of this parsha (between the census and the flags) – where it really does not belong. The insertion was a reminder of the central role the Mishkan played in unifying Klal Yisrael and allowing them to configure themselves by independent camps and flags.
Even though in terms of streamlining the narration, it would have been just as well to skip this section that will be repeated later on in the parsha, the Torah wants to make a point here that we must remember the central motif that binds us as a single nation. Therefore, right before the flags, the Torah inserts the Mishkan and its supervisors (the Leviim).
Raising a Person’s Flag Up the Flag Pole To Create Group Identity
The Medrash Rabbah in Parshas Bamidbar says that when Hashem’s Presence descended upon Har Sinai (which we will reenact a week from this Shabbos on Shavuos morning), 22 rivivos (units) of 10,000 malachim (angels) descended with Him – each with flags. This is a strange statement because a flag is a physical item and malachim are entirely spiritual. Klal Yisrael saw this sight and – the Medrash adds – they began to passionately long for flags for themselves. Hashem responded that since they longed for flags, He would grant their wish. Therefore, He gave them the flags.
The question, of course, is: What is so great about flags and especially the nuance of the language of the Medrash – “they passionately longed for Flags” (nis’avee’sem)?
The answer is that flags represent a person’s tachlis (purpose). Even though malachim are spiritual beings, when it says they each had their own flag, it really means that each had their own purpose. Chazal say in many places that every malach has only one purpose. They only do one thing at a time – that is their sole focus. Every malach knows its job and its designated role in existence. When the Medrash says that Klal Yisrael “passionately longed” for flags, it does not mean physical flags. They longed for the ability to know their purpose in life and their designated mission.
This is one of the greatest gifts that a person can have in this world – to know what he is supposed to do. In Parshas VaYechi, when Yaakov Avinu takes all his children beside his death bed and gives them his “blessing,” we are often left wondering – what kind of blessings are these? Many of them are not really blessings. The answer is that he tells them about their techunas ha’nefesh – the inner qualities of their souls – their essence. He tells them about their strengths and their weaknesses. He tells them what they are supposed to be doing. That is the biggest bracha in life – to know what you are supposed to do.
People talk about “having to find themselves.” It is a major challenge. I don’t know if the way many people try to go about “finding themselves” is always correct, but the fact that they want to “find themselves” is very understandable and natural. That is why sometimes people work at a job for ten, twenty, or thirty years and then suddenly completely switch jobs and find themselves happier than they have ever been. They feel that they have wasted thirty years of their life, because they were not doing what they were “supposed to be doing.”
So, the source of the envy that Klal Yisrael had for the malachim was that they saw that every malach understood and was focused on their dedicated mission. This is the attribute for which they longed. Hashem said “This is what I am going to do. I am going to give you flags as well and group you with others who have the same tachlis (purpose) and the same tafkid (role). This is a great blessing.
I would like to conclude with an interesting story brought down by the Tolna Rebbe, which speaks to this point.
There was a Yekkishe Yid (Jew of German descent) named Rav Avrohom Hoffman, who lived in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) and worked for the government. He was in Eretz Yisrael both before and during World War II. After the war, when Holocaust survivors began arriving in Eretz Yisrael, Gerer Chassidim (from Poland) were among those who came. The first time Rav Hoffman saw Gerer Chassidim walking down the streets of Yerushalayim, he saw that their pants were tucked into their socks. For him, this was the strangest thing in the world. Why stick your pant legs into your socks?
He met two Gerer Chassidim and he asked them about this strange practice. They explained, “In Poland the streets were not paved. The roads were muddy. Socks cost less than pants. If something has to get dirty, better the socks should get dirty than the pants. That is why we wear our pants inside our socks.”
Rav Hoffman said, “I have news for you. This is not Poland. The streets in Yerushalayim are not muddy and there is no reason to wear your socks in your pants anymore.” This logical observation made no impression whatsoever upon them. Sometime after that, Rav Avrohom Hoffman met the Gerer Rebbe (the Beis Yisrael). He figured that since he could not get a satisfactory answer from the chassidim, he would ask the Rebbe himself about this strange custom.
The Rebbe answered: “This is our flag!” This is part of the identification uniform of a Gerer Chassid. When he wears his pants in this fashion, he is proclaiming “I am a Chossid of the Gerer Rebbe.” This is my group and this is my tachlis. That is what I am proud of and that is the way I fly my flag – by wearing my pants inside my socks.
This is what flags are all about – being part of something that is bigger than the person himself, being part of a group, knowing the tachlis of the group and knowing one’s tafkid within a specific group.
Good Shabbos and Good Yom Tov.
Transcribed by David Twersky; Jerusalem [email protected]
Edited by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, MD [email protected]
This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Series on the weekly Torah portion. A listing of the halachic portions for Parshas Bamidbar is provided below:
- 013 Yerushalayim in Halacha
- 058 Going Up To Yerushalayim for Yom Tov: Does it Apply Today?
- 101 Teaching Torah to Women
- 147 Sefiras HaOmer, Shavuos & the International Dateline
- 194 Can One Charge for Teaching Torah?
- 240 An Early Start for Shavuos?
- 284 Birchas HaTorah
- 330 Sefer Rus and Its Halachic Implications
- 374 Bathing On Shabbos and Yom Tov
- 418 Shavuos Issues–Late Maariv–Learning All Night
- 462 May A Child Carry A Sefer On Shabbos
- 506 Shavuos: Two Days, She’cheyanu & Other Issues
- 550 Opening Cans on Shabbos & Yom Tov
- 594 Omer Davar B’Sheim Omro – Giving Proper Credit
- 638 Eruv and the Big City
- 682 Carrying on Yom Tov
- 726 Returning Pidyon Haben Money
- 770 Let Them Eat Cheesecake
- 814 Oy, The Eruv is Down, Now What?
- 858 Ms. Cohen for A Pidyon Habein?
- 902 Dancing on Yom Tov
- 946 The Beautiful Poem of Akdomus
- 989 The Mitzva of Talmud Torah – How Much – How Little?
- 1033 Conning Someone Out of A Mitzva
- 1077 Can A Father Give Son His Position (Rabbi/Chazan) While Still Alive?
- 1120 The Zohar vs Talmud Bavli: Whom Do We Pasken Like?
- 1162 Yahrtzeit/Yizkor Candles on Yom Tov – Is There A Problem?
- 1206 What Bracha on Cheesecake? Is It BH or BSD? And other Shavuos Issues
- 1250 Erev Shavuos on Shabbos
- 1294 When Should Women Light Candles for Shavuos?
- 1338 Can You Make The Second Day of Shavuos Early? Can American Mohel in Israel Perform A Bris on the Second Day of Shavuos.
- 1382 The Halachic Issues with Milchig Bread
- 1426 Shavuos – A potpourri of Dinim and Minhagim – Adding Water to Flowers and more
- 1470 How is Adopted Child Called to Torah? Named in Kesuba? And other fascinating Shailos.
- 1514 Shavuos – Women and Candle Lighting for Yom Tov
A complete catalogue can be ordered from the Yad Yechiel Institute, PO Box 511, Owings Mills MD 21117-0511. Call (410) 358-0416 or e-mail [email protected] or visit http://www.yadyechiel.org/ for further information.