Flags of Love and War – Parashat Bamidbar

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FLAGS OF LOVE AND WAR – Parshat Bamidbar

by Rabbi David Kasher

What’s the big deal with burning a flag? A flag is just a symbol of the state, after all; it isn’t the state itself. Who cares if someone wants to set a colored piece of cloth on fire?

A lot of people, it turns out. Most modern nations have some sort of law against flag desecration, some of them imposing punishments of imprisonment, or even death. The United States Supreme Court, an exception, has ruled that it is unconstitutional to prohibit the destruction of a the flag for the purposes of political protest; but many – including both recent U.S. candidates for president – have called for that ruling to be overturned.

We sure do love our flags. But can we love them a bit too much?

Flags were important in the ancient nation of Israel as well, as we learn this week in the first reading from of the Book of Numbers. The book begins with a census (hence the name, ‘Numbers’), and then moves on to describe the official placement of the tribal camps, formed whenever the Children of Israel would stop during their journey through the desert. We read:

The Children of Israel shall camp, each with his flag, as a sign of their father’s house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance. (Numbers 2:2)

אִ֣ישׁ עַל־דִּגְל֤וֹ בְאֹתֹת֙ לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֔ם יַחֲנ֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל מִנֶּ֕גֶד סָבִ֥יב לְאֹֽהֶל־מוֹעֵ֖ד יַחֲנֽוּ

The tribes were arranged in a square around the Tabernacle, with three tribes positioned on each side (except the north, which had only two, because the priestly tribe of Levi camped closer the Tabernacle). And each tribe had its own special flag, with – according to the midrash on our verse above – a specific color and emblem. That midrash is worth reading through, to see just how much thought the rabbis put into these flags, and how vividly they were described:

Reuben’s was red, and had a picture of mandrakes.

Shimon’s was green, and had a picture of the city of Shechem.

Levi’s was green, back, and red, and had a picture of the Urim and Tumim.

Judah’s was sky blue and had a picture of a lion.

Issachar’s was bluish-black and and a picture of a sun and moon.

Zevulun’s was white and had a picture of a ship.

Dan’s was sapphire and had a picture of a snake.

Gad’s was grey and had a picture of an encampment.

Naphtali’s was wine-red and had a picture of a deer.

Asher’s was pearl, and had a picture of an olive tree.

Joseph’s was deep black, and had a picture of two princes.

Benjamin’s was multicolored and had a picture of a wolf. (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:7)

רְאוּבֵן אַבְנוֹ אֹדֶם וּמַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ צָבוּעַ אָדֹם וּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיו דּוּדָאִים. שִׁמְעוֹן פִּטְדָה וּמַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ צָבוּעַ יָרֹק וּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיו שְׁכֶם. לֵוִי בָּרֶקֶת וּמַפָּהשֶׁלּוֹ צָבוּעַ שְׁלִישׁ לָבָן וּשְׁלִישׁ שָׁחֹר וּשְׁלִישׁ אָדֹם וּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיו אוּרִים וְתוּמִים. יְהוּדָה נֹפֶךְ וְצֶבַע מַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ דְּמוּתוֹ כְּמִין שָׁמַיִם וּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיואַרְיֵה. יִשָֹּׂשכָר סַפִּיר וּמַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ צָבוּעַ שָׁחֹר דּוֹמֶה לְכָחֹל וּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיו שֶׁמֶשׁ וְיָרֵחַ … זְבוּלוּן יַהֲלֹם וְצֶבַע מַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ לְבָנָה וּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיוסְפִינָה …. דָּן לֶשֶׁם וְצֶבַע מַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ דּוֹמֶה לְסַפִּיר וּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיו נָחָשׁ…. גָּד שְׁבוֹ וְצֶבַע מַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ לֹא לָבָן וְלֹא שָׁחֹר אֶלָּא מְעֹרָב שָׁחֹר וְלָבָןוּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיו מַחֲנֶה… נַפְתָּלִי אַחְלָמָה וְצֶבַע מַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ דּוֹמֶה לְיַיִן צָלוּל שֶׁאֵין אַדְמוּתוֹ עַזָּה וּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיו אַיָּלָה… נַפְתָּלִי אַיָּלָה שְׁלֻחָה.אָשֵׁר תַּרְשִׁישׁ וְצֶבַע מַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ דּוֹמֶה לְאֶבֶן יְקָרָה שֶׁמִּתְקַשְּׁטוֹת בּוֹ הַנָּשִׁים, וּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיו אִילָן זַיִת … יוֹסֵף שֹׁהַם וְצֶבַע מַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ שָׁחֹר עַדמְאֹד וּמְצֻיָּר לִשְׁנֵי נְשִׂיאִים אֶפְרַיִם וּמְנַשֶּׁה.. בִּנְיָמִין יָשְׁפֵה וְצֶבַע מַפָּה שֶׁלּוֹ דּוֹמֶה לְכָל הַצְּבָעִים לִשְׁנֵים עָשָׂר הַצְּבָעִים וּמְצֻיָּר עָלָיו זְאֵב

These flags were regal, artfully crafted, and each one displayed an image drawn from the particular story of the son of Jacob who founded that tribe. They were clearly symbols of great pride.

But even as these flags were being so exuberantly waved about, the same midrash imagines Moses beginning to worry about all the pomp and ceremony surrounding tribal identification:

When the Holy Blessed one told Moses to make these flags as they desired, Moses began to feel distressed. He said, “Now there will be future conflicts between the tribes. If I say to the Tribe of Judah to camp on the east side, he will say he can only camp in the north, and the same with Reuben, and with Ephraim, and with every single tribe. What shall I do??

בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁאָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְמשֶׁה עֲשֵׂה אוֹתָם דְּגָלִים כְּמוֹ שֶׁנִּתְאַוּוּ, הִתְחִיל משֶׁה מֵצֵר, אָמַר עַכְשָׁו עֲתִידָה הַמַּחֲלֹקֶת לְהִנָּתֵן בֵּיןהַשְּׁבָטִים, אִם אֲנִי אוֹמֵר לְשִׁבְטוֹ שֶׁל יְהוּדָה שֶׁיִּשְׁרֶה בַּמִּזְרָח וְהוּא אוֹמֵר אִי אֶפְשִׁי אֶלָּא בַּדָּרוֹם, וְכֵן רְאוּבֵן וְכֵן אֶפְרַיִם וְכֵן כָּל שֵׁבֶטוְשֵׁבֶט, מָה אֲנִי עוֹשֶׂה

We see in Moses’ anxiety an keen intuition about the perils of nationalistic fervor. It is true, the more a group becomes attached to their tribal, ethnic identity, the more they tend to be insistent in their claim to a particular plot of land – and willing to fight for it. Moses is worried for good reason: flag-waving has often enough been a prelude to violence.

But then the midrash continues with God answering Moses back, arguing the other side:

The Holy Blessed one said, what does it matter to you? They won’t need you. They know their own dwelling-places. They have a diagram passed down from their father Jacob telling them exactly how to dwell under their flags, and I am not changing that. They already have a traditional ordering from their Father Jacob. Just as they arranged themselves as they surrounded him on his deathbed, so will they surround the Tabernacle.

, אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא משֶׁה מָה אִכְפַּת לָךְ אֵין צְרִיכִין לָךְ, מֵעַצְמָן הֵן מַכִּירִין דִּירָתָן, אֶלָּא דְּיָתֵיקֵי יֵשׁ בְּיָדָן מִיַּעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם הֵיאַךְלִשְׁרוֹת בַּדְּגָלִים, אֵינִי מְחַדֵּשׁ עֲלֵיהֶם, כְּבָר יֵשׁ לָהֶן טַכְסִיס מִיַּעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם כְּמוֹ שֶׁטָּעֲנוּ אוֹתוֹ וְהִקִּיפוּ אֶת מִטָּתוֹ כָּךְ יַקִּיפוּ אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן

The flags, God assures, will not only help the tribes locate themselves in an orderly fashion out on the desert plain, but will also provide them with a deep and meaningful sense of belonging in the world. As they raise their banners, they remind themselves of where they come from, and connect themselves to their ancestors. Remember that the Torah called the flags “a sign of their father’s house.” As the midrash imagines it, that is literally the house of their father Jacob, who first mapped out his sons’ positioning by summoning them to his bed in a certain arrangement, to receive the final blessings – many of which contain the symbols that will one day appear on their flags.

And there are other little clues in our parsha’s layout of the tribal encampment that link us back to the story of Jacob. The north, east, south, west placements may remind us of a verse back in Genesis, early in Jacob’s life, when God blesses him in a dream, saying:

Your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. (Gen. 28:14)

וְהָיָה זַרְעֲךָ כַּעֲפַר הָאָרֶץ, וּפָרַצְתָּ יָמָּה וָקֵדְמָה וְצָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה

A careful reader will also note the mention of the camp of Ephraim, and then, just afterwards, the camp of Menashe, and remember a similar ordering in the story of Jacob giving blessings to his grandsons, Menashe and Ephraim. For though Menashe was the elder, and therefore in line for the first blessing, Jacob insisted on blessing Ephraim first. And so, says the Torah:

Thus he placed Ephraim before Menashe. (Gen. 48:20)

וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת-אֶפְרַיִם, לִפְנֵי מְנַשֶּׁה

The flag procession replicates the blessings of Jacob – both ‘to’ and ‘from’ – because these tribal identities descend from a family tree whose roots can be traced back to a beloved father. This is not just a matter of territory or pride; these flags also represent a profound connection to home, and tradition, and even love.

Our midrash, then, in the dialogue between Moses and God, astutely lays out the tension inherent in any form of nationalism. On the one hand, when masses of people are mobilized together through shared ethnic identity, there is always a great danger of their coming to violence. But on the other hand, through these tribe-like national affiliations we are able to experience a sense of belonging to our society, as if it were our own family.

Nations can breed hatred; but they can also cultivate love. Flags can be symbols of aggression, or of affection.

With that dichotomy in mind, it is worth remarking that after the Book of Numbers, the word for ‘flag,’ (degel – דגל) appears in only two other books in the Hebrew Bible – and their contexts offer a striking parallel to the binary we have seen so far.

The next time we find the word used comes in the book of Psalms, in the following verse:

Let us sing for joy in your salvation, flagged (nidgol) by the name of our God. May the Lord fulfill all that you ask for. (Psalms 20:6)

נְרַנְּנָ֤ה ׀ בִּ֘ישׁ֤וּעָתֶ֗ךָ וּבְשֵֽׁם־אֱלֹקינוּ נִדְגֹּ֑ל יְמַלֵּ֥א ה כָּל־מִשְׁאֲלוֹתֶֽיךָ׃

This is the flag-waving of victory, of the satisfaction of desires. One senses behind these words a battle recently won, the glorious triumph over an enemy. Rashi even alludes to such imagery when he comments:

flagged – meaning, gathered together and made strong

נדגול נתאסף ונעשה חיל

The word he uses for ‘strong’ (chayil – חיל), is one usually reserved for soldiers. And why not? For who else carries a flag just after a victory?

The other book which mentions flags, however, gives them a very different connotation – for it is a very different book: the Song of Songs, the sensuous poetic account of two lovers in pursuit of one another. And here is the first mention of our word:

He brought me into the wine-house, and his flag (diglo) of love was draped over me. (Song of Songs 2:4)

הֱבִיאַ֙נִי֙ אֶל־בֵּ֣ית הַיָּ֔יִן וְדִגְל֥וֹ עָלַ֖י אַהֲבָֽה׃

Now a flag is a tender sign of love – even intimacy. And the Song of Songs persists in using this image, again and again asking us to imagine the flag as symbol of love:

My beloved is pure and flushed, and flagged (dagul) among the multitudes. (Song of Songs 5:10)

דּוֹדִ֥י צַח֙ וְאָד֔וֹם דָּג֖וּל מֵרְבָבָֽה׃

So a flag can be a marker of love, or the banner of war. Which is it, then, in our parsha, when the Children of Israel first set up camp under their flags? As they form this one nation made up of many tribes, are they bonding together as a family, or defensively marking out separate, tribal territory?

All of that potential is within them. They might go either way. In fact, the rest of the Book of Numbers will continue play out this tension. There will be episodes of mutiny, civil war and assassination in the chapters ahead. But the people will also gather together for national ceremonies, communal blessings, and collective mourning. Through their long desert journey, they will be learning what it means to be a nation – the good, the bad, and the sometimes very ugly. And when the Book of Numbers draws to a close, they will find themselves standing at the Jordan, ready to cross over into the promised land, where all of these lessons of nationhood will be put to the test.

It is a test which continues, even today, for every nation standing under a flag.

More from ParshaNut on Parshat ֵBamidbar:



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