איש על דגלו באתת לבית אבתם יחנו בני ישראל, מנגד, סביב לאהל מועד יחנו
(במדבר ב’, ב’)
New parasha, new book.
BaMidbar opens with the counting of the people of Israel, on the second year of their travels in the desert. Hence its English name: The Book of Numbers. In this parasha we read that God commands His people to pitch their tents around the central place of worship, in a special arrangement, by tribe, raising a flag showing the tribe’s colours:
The children of Israel shall pitch by their fathers’ houses; every man with his own flag, according to the ensigns; a good way off shall they pitch round about the tent of meeting.
(BaMidbar 2, 2)
The Midrash tells us that it was the people themselves who asked to have their own flags and camp under their own banner. The idea came to them in Sinai, where they witnessed the angels (no less than 240,000 says the Midrash) descending upon the mountain, arranged in tidy groups, each group bearing its own flag. God, upon hearing the wish of the people to be arranged in a similar way, promised He would fulfill that wish and hence this command to Moshe to arrange the tribes according to their flags.
Why the importance of flags? Why the wish of Bnei Israel to be like the angels?
Commentators explain that one of the main differences between angels and humans is that each angel (or group of angels) is given one specific task to perform and is not allowed (indeed, is not capable) to perform any other tasks. There is a perfect division of labour between the angels, each knowing his place in the kingdom of heaven. Thus, there is no rivalry and no envy between angels. Humans, on the other hand, have free choice and can perform many tasks. By nature, human beings are competitive and jealous of each other and perfect harmony and unity, such as is present among the angels, is impossible.
Bnei Israel saw the perfect unity of the angels and were, well, envious (as befits human beings). God could not change the nature of humanity and turn them into angels. But he could at least give them some order and sense of purpose, imitating the tidy groupings of the angels by organizing the tribes by flags. This division symbolises a duality. On one hand, the people of Israel are one under God. On the other, they are individuals, each with his own tasks and duties to fulfill in the world.
It is impossible for us to be like angels. But we can at least try and imitate the unity and harmony of the angels, whilst keeping our individuality and unique sense of purpose at the same time.
The idea for this week’s Thought is from Y. Lapian from Kerem B’Yavneh.