Bamidbar: When Jews Gathered By Their Flags

Jewish identity can and must be simultaneously national, tribal, and familial.

Imagine if you were challenged to design a flag that represents your ancestry and values. What would it look like?

Table for Five: Bamidbar

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance. Num. 2:2


Rebecca Klempner, Author and Editor

Looking at the original Hebrew, I find it interesting that the word “minegged” is immediately followed by the word “saviv.” Somehow, the Jews encampment was both “at a distance” and “encircling” the Tent of Meeting. The first word suggests reserve; the latter, intimacy.

This hails back to an earlier story. Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, brought an incense offering without God commanding them to do so. On Leviticus 10:1, the Ohr HaChaim comments, “The words, ‘in the presence of the Lord’ may be intended to inspire fear and reverence for the Tabernacle in the people who witnessed that even people who entered in order to offer the offering dearest to God, incense, had died as a result of doing something unauthorized.” Essentially, Nadav and Abihu loved God immensely—but ignored appropriate boundaries. In their enthusiasm to serve God, they didn’t wait for an invitation to do so.

While we love our synagogues, our Torah, and our Jewish heritage, we need to express appropriate reverence for them, not just affection. How many times have I ignored synagogue decorum because I felt right at home? (Too often.) Made light of one of the mitzvot? (Plenty of times, alas.) Ridiculed a Torah teacher? (Do I have to answer that?)

The simultaneous distance and proximity between the Tent of Meeting and the Children of Israel in their camp reminds us that proper love is always balanced with respect.


Dr. Ivor Geft, Cardiologist and enthusiastic Torah teacher

This parsha begins the Book of Bamidbar, also known as Numbers but more accurately Chumach Hapikudim, the Book of the Cenci, as the Children of Israel are counted both at the beginning and at the end. The instruction in Chapter 2, verse 2, is that “they shall encamp, each man by his banner, according to the insignia of their father’s household.” After so many years of exile and final redemption, the camp of Am Yisrael is still defined by “their father’s household.”

The nations of the world questioned the preferential treatment given to Am Yisrael at the time Torah was given on Mt. Sinai (Yalkut Shimoni, Remez 784) casting aspersions on their lineage. God silenced their protest by demanding that they “bring [their] Sefer Yuchasin (book of lineage) just as My people did.”

At the time of the second census, in Parshat Pinchas, Rashi, quoting the Midrash, notes that the names of all the families are written with the letter hei in front and the letter yud at the end, putting God’s seal of authentication on the purity of each family. This is a response to the aspersions cast on the lineage of Am Yisrael by the nations: “Do they think the Egyptians did not abuse their mothers?” And God replied: “I testify that they are the sons of their fathers.”

So while we are here because of our mothers, we take our place within the nation according to our fathers.


Rabbi Aaron Finkelstein, Milken Middle School Rabbi

This verse always reminds me of the aufruf before my wedding. After my aliyah, our good friend and Mesader Kiddushin shared with me that he always appreciated how I had both charted my own path in life yet remained true to my family. I was “l’veit avotam,” he said, “of my family’s home.”

Embedded in this verse are two relationships that are central to many of our lives: family and faith. The 19th century commentator Malbim explains that each person had a unique flag which also contained their family’s symbol. I wonder what my ancient flag might have been – a book and a whisk, for a rabbi who is the son of a chef? I love learning and teaching, and I love cooking as well, a passion which I undoubtedly inherited from my father. The flags of the desert encapsulated these dual identities, that of self and of family.

However, Bamidbar Rabba (2:3) suggests an alternative meaning for the flags, linking them not to family but to God. At Sinai, 22,000 angels waved special flags of divine service. The Israelites sought to emulate the angels by finding their own way to serve and celebrate God.

Perhaps it is both. In life, we each have to figure out who we are and how we can use our talents to serve others and ultimately God. When we do so, we wave a flag that is uniquely ours, connected to faith and also “L’veit avotam”, a tribute to the family that came before us.


Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, Senior Rabbi Ahavattorahla.org

The beginning of the book of Bamidbar/Numbers represents a great shift in the relationship between God and the People of Israel. They are no longer in Egypt, they have received the Torah and now they need to forge their identity before they enter the Land of Israel. Up to now they assembled in any each way they wanted, but now they need to develop an order. They need to organize as a nation who does not lose individuality, yet is connected to all people whose heart and center is God. Yes, the Mishkan stood in the middle of the camp while all twelve tribes stood in equal formation away from the Mishkan, three tribes on each side of the camp. Ma Tovu Ohaleha, how magnificent was this sight for all who experienced it.

Each tribe had its own identifying flag with the symbols that connected them to their family home and to the nation as a whole. Before his death, Jacob told each son their symbol and related it to his character or a life event. The colors of each tribe were represented on Aaron’s breastplate. These amazing designs of our ancestors’ flags expressed their sacred ideas, hopes, values, beliefs and history.

At this challenging time of COVID-19, we have all had to re-evaluate what is really important in our lives. Therefore, if you were to create your family’s flag, what would you choose to include and what would you choose to omit on your flag. Would it be centered on God? Why?


Rabbi Aryeh Markman, Executive Director, Aish LA

A prominent Rabbi said the COVID-19 message is for each Jew to discover how best to perfect themselves along the Torah continuum and find their role in the world. This week’s verse alludes to the Torah concept of knowing one’s place.

For the 40-year desert journey, the Jews encamped in a tribal formation. Reminiscent of how their forefathers, the 12 sons of Jacob, stood around Jacob’s deathbed when receiving their blessings and last words of guidance from the Patriarch.

The verse describes how the Jews encircle God’s presence, the Tabernacle, at equal distance. Each tribe had its own place, purpose and distinct banner. No one had an identity crisis, nor felt dislocated or isolated.

It seems today that God has decided to reorganize the world. This is giving the Jews a magnificent opportunity to find our true place as the new reality unfolds.

Mankind has been paralyzed by an invisible microbe. Numerous labs are trying to create a vaccine. No one knows what the future holds. A classic Black Swan event that taught us just how limited, vulnerable and mortal we are. We should be humbled and that is the point! Our resignation to fate is the opportunity in this madness.

Humility sensitizes us to grasp reality so we can better understand the unique role we are to play. And thereby find the place and space where we belong, both as individuals and as a part of the Jewish people. This is the dynamic that will heal the world.

With thanks to Rebecca Klempner, Dr. Ivor Geft, Rabbi Aaron Finkelstein, Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, and Rabbi Aryeh Markman

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