In summer camp, I loved playing capture the flag. Each team had to hide its flag and protect it from being captured by their opponent. Whoever caught the other team’s flag won. To me, the flag was just an objective of the team, the equivalent of a ball. But flags do have a deeper meaning. They usually represent a country or sometimes a valued team. Each country has a flag with specific colors and symbols, depicting a certain quality, ideology, value or power of that country. In America, in addition to the national flag, each state has its own flag to depict the quality of the particular state.
When a dignitary of one country visits another country or there is an international sports competition, the hosting country/team will customarily display the flag of the visiting countries or teams.
In Parshas Bamidbar, Hashem designates specific flags for each shevet (tribe). The Midrash says that each flag had its own unique color. The color of the flag of each shevet was the same color as its specific stone on the urim v’tumim (breastplate) worn by the Kohen Gadol. Further, each shevet had a unique picture on its flag. Reuven had a picture of flowers, Levi the urim v’tumim, Yehuda a lion and so on. When assembling with other shevatim, their flag enabled people to locate their shevet easily and quickly.
The Midrash says that when Bnei Yisrael were at Har Sinai, they saw that the angels had flags and they desired to also have flags. They requested that Moshe ask Hashem to give them flags!
Moshe was worried that the flags would cause jealousy and animosity among the tribes. But Hashem told Moshe not to be concerned; each tribe would recognize its position in the assembly through the flags, and this actually would help unify the Jewish nation.
Why this strong desire for flags? What is so special about them that each tribe wanted its own?
The Ramban explains that each flag depicted the uniqueness of the shevet. Each had its own special quality, which determined how the shevatim were positioned around the Mishkan and how they traveled. Rav Dessler explained that this positioning created a sense of order. The reasoning behind the need for order is threefold: 1) order for the sake of order, 2) order to be able to locate misplaced items later, and finally, 3) order to allow the shevatim to work together to achieve their goals. For example, all the components of a machine have their specific placement so that the machine will operate effectively.
In summary, the flags created order for Klal Yisrael so they could work harmoniously with one another. The flags helped unify the Jewish nation.
Many people mistakenly believe that unity occurs when everyone acts the same. In truth, that’s not unity.
Unity is when people of different natures come together for a united purpose. The flags of the shevatim represented that each shevet had its own unique talents which its members used in serving Hashem. Collectively, they surrounded the Mishkan, which contained the Shechinah (Divine presence). The Torah was inside the Aron, surrounded by the Mishkan. Every tribe, different and unique, helped Bnei Yisrael serve Hashem as one nation.
The Ohr HaChaim says that one pivotal area for everyone to work on to prepare for Kabbalas HaTorah is unity. As the pasuk says, “…vayichan sham Yisrael…—Israel camped there opposite the mountain.” The word vayichan is written in singular form, even though it refers to the entire nation. Rashi says they camped at the mountain as one unit—united both in mind and in spirit.
As we approach Shavuos and prepare for Kabbalas HaTorah, it’s imperative that we work on ourselves to be part of a united nation. People have a tendency to stereotype others, assigning them to certain “boxes.” People are tempted to bond only with individuals who are like them. Our “flags” today are the different types of Jews that exist: Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Chasidim, Litvaks… the list goes on. We’re different, but we have one common purpose: to serve Hashem based on the Torah. The flags of the tribes teach us not to ignore the differences between Jews, but to value the differences, looking at the qualities each group brings to the table.
Klal Yisrael is full of varied people and practices. When we value our differences, we can work together and act as one unit to glorify Hashem and His Torah. In this way we will merit an enhanced level of Kabbalas HaTorah this year on Shavuos.
Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate rosh yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch, where he leads a multi-level Gemara learning program. PTI has attracted adult Jews of all ages from all over northern New Jersey for its learning programs. Fees are not charged, but contributions are always welcome. Rabbi Bodenheim can be reached at [email protected]. For more info about PTI and its Torah classes, visit www.pti.shulcloud.com.