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 deathbed 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.