What would likely be surprising to most people is the fact that the tradition of bearing flags is rooted in Judaism and symbolizes one’s unique mission.
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, United with Israel
This week’s Torah portion is Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1 -4:20), and it opens the reading of the Book of Numbers. As the name of the Book implies, there is a lot about “numbers” in this book, namely, multiple censuses of the Jewish people.
Although one might have thought otherwise, flags are a very Jewish thing. Indeed, you cannot get more Jewish than the Torah! At the beginning of our reading we come across the verse, “The Children of Israel will encamp each man by his flag according to the symbol of their fathers’ household…” With this, the Torah delineates the manner and formation in which the Jewish people traveled while in the desert. In addition to each tribe having their own flag, the Twelve Tribes were divided into four camps, and each of these four camps, in turn, had their own flag.
The Midrash (rabbinic literature) teaches that God arranged that the flags of the tribes corresponded to the flag of the ministering Angels in Heaven. This was considered to be an act of love and affection towards the Jewish people. The Midrash cites a verse to prove this was so. “And how do we know that the distribution of flags was a great demonstration of love for the Jewish people?… as the verse [Song of Songs 2:4] says, “He brought me to the chamber of Torah delights and clustered my encampments about Him in love.”
And there’s more. Going back “a few chapters” to the Revelation at Sinai in the Book of Exodus, the Midrash further states that when God revealed Himself on Mount Sinai, the thousands of angels that descended to witness the Revelation proudly displayed their flags. When the Jewish people saw these flags, they became jealous and wanted their own flags too! God responded that they will have their own flags in the near future. That future is now, in this week’s reading.
The question is asked: Why did the angels want or need flags? Angels are not physical beings; flags are physical/material items. What can the connection possibly be?
It is explained that a flag declares its holder’s mission. For example, although the IDF has its own flag, every unit in the IDF has its own flag as well, which declares that unit’s specific mission in the IDF: Air Force, Artillery, Engineering, Tanks, and more.
We are taught that every angel has a specific mission as well, so when the Midrash says that the Angels appeared on Mt. Sinai with their flags, it was a way of conveying what their specific mission was.
There is an important message here. How many people just “go with the flow” and never ponder their unique mission in the world? How are they distinct, how can they contribute, where so their talents lie? Unfortunately, most people just let life pass them by in an essentially boring routine. Be sure to display your flag!
For more insights by Rabbi Ari Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.
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