by Eliezer Segal

Numbers 1

52 The people of Israel shall pitch their tents by their companies, every man by his own camp and every man by his own standard; 53but the Levites shall encamp around the tabernacle of the testimony, that there may be no wrath upon the congregation of the people of Israel; and the Levites shall keep charge of the tabernacle of the testimony. 54 Thus did the people of Israel; they did according to all that the Lord commanded Moses.

Numbers 2

1The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 2 The people of Israel shall encamp each by his own standard, with the ensigns of their fathers' houses; they shall encamp facing the tent of meeting on every side...

...34Thus did the people of Israel. According to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so they encamped by their standards, and so they set out, every one in his family, according to his fathers' house.

I must confess that I have a problem with flags.

In part, this is a by-product of my Canadian upbringing. Indifference--or even hostility--to displays of nationalism is, I suppose, a central feature of the Canadian value system. If nothing else, it provides us with a pretext for feeling superior to those flag-waving yahoos to the south. In contrast to them, we are taught to believe that quintessential expression of Canadian patriotism is...lack of patriotism.

The syndrome is compounded by the fact that I am one of those baby-boomers whose values were shaped decisively against the background of the 60 s, and especially of the Vietnam War, a conflict that contributed its share to bringing flags and flag-wavers into disrepute.

You may therefore imagine my consternation at reading the instructions for the encampment of the Israelites in the desert (Numbers 1:52, etc.): The people of Israel shall pitch their tents by their companies, every man by his own camp and every man by his own flag. I have translated the rare Hebrew word degel here as flag in keeping with the views of Rabbi Moses ha-Darshan (in Bemidbar Rabbah) and Rashi, who understood that the Israelites carried standards decorated with symbols of their respective tribes. I recognize that other exegetes interpreted the word differently, as referring to the orderly military-style arrangements into which the people were organized. Even according to those readings, the allusion appears to be to elements of pomp, circumstance and pageantry that emanate from the same motives as conventional flag-waving.

This interpretation is supported by a midrashic tradition that is cited by several of the traditional Jewish commentators (as found in Midrash Tanhuma and elsewhere):

...Each by his own standard, with the ensigns (Deuteronomy 2:2)--

This is what Scripture stated: He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love (Song of Songs 2:4).

What is the meaning of He brought me to the banqueting house ? --When the Holy One revealed himself at Mount Sinai, there descended with him 22,000 chariots of angels, as it says: With mighty chariotry, twice ten thousand, thousands upon thousands, the Lord came from Sinai into the holy place (Psalms 68:18); and they were each arrayed with banners.

For this reason it is written My beloved is all radiant and ruddy, distinguished [Hebrew: dagul] among ten thousand (Song of Songs 5:10).

As soon as Israel saw how they were each arrayed with banners, they were overcome with a desire for banners. They said: If only we could have banners like them.

For this reason it says He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.

He brought me to the banqueting house --This refers to Sinai, where the Torah was given, which is compared to wine, as it says: Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed (Proverbs 9:5). Hence: The banqueting house refers to Sinai.

and his banner over me was love --They said: If only he would express his love for me through banners. And thus does it state: May we shout for joy over your victory, and in the name of our God set up our banner! (Psalms 20:6).

Then the Holy One said to them: You have a desire for banners. So by your lives! I shall grant your desire; as it says (ibid. 5): May he grant you your heart's desire, and fulfil all your plans!

Immediately the Holy One made known his love for Israel by instructing Moses to array them under banners, according to their desire.

This touching legend is not without its difficulties. Yes, God is portrayed as an indulgent parent eager to satisfy the whims of his children. But really! Is this the sort of childish whim that ought to be encouraged? It sounds as if the kids have just passed by a circus or a toy shop and are nagging their parents to buy them the flashiest and gaudiest items that captured their immature imaginations. As a parent, I would probably have resisted such shallow desires, and would not have been particularly proud if I had given in to their begging.

Even the long-suffering God could lose his patience in the face of inappropriate requests from the children of Israel, as we will read later (Numbers Chapter 11) on when they start whining to Moses that they are dissatisfied with their diet of mannah, and want to feast on meat instead. To this, the Lord retorts that he will give them meat, but that they will regret it: You shall not eat one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you. Frankly, the request for meat strikes me as more reasonable than the desire to wave around some shiny strips of coloured cloth.

And yes, I realize that the Israelites were merely trying to emulate the angelic hosts at Sinai who were the first to brandish their flags. But that just makes the story more disturbing to me. I can understand how imperfect mortals can be impressed by pomp and pageantry (the entire advertising industry is built on that assumption)--but I expected better from angels! And for that matter, why choose the revelation of the Torah--the most sublime event in Israel s sacred history--as the occasion for this garish military parade?

Clearly, the words of the Torah, as well as their midrashic interpretations, cannot be taken at face value here; and we must reflect on the more profound implications of this symbolic story.

What, after all, does a flag represent?

Ultimately, it is a sign of recognition, intended to to indicate the power to which the citizens or soldiers give their allegiance.

Seen this way, when the Midrash portrays the hosts of angels arrayed under banners, it intends to symbolize that the very essence of their being is to serve as the agents of God in the world.

When the Almighty revealed the Torah to Israel, they were elevated to a unique and unprecedented spiritual state. Israel wanted to achieve that same level of spiritual consciousness and purity that they were now capable of discerning in the celestial realms. They aspired to reach the state in which everything they do is, as it were, stamped with the banner of God. Because we are all agents of the Almighty who responsible for bringing holiness into the world, ideally that fact should be as obvious to us, and to others, as if we were carrying banners advertising our mission.

Until the momentous experience at Mount Sinai, when the Israelites were given their unique opportunity to see the world from an angel s-eye perspective, it had not been clear to them that humble creatures have a role to play in the divine plan. In Egypt, matters of religion were the exclusive prerogative of a small priestly elite, while normal individuals were expected to lead their earthly lives without directly concerning themselves with spiritual pursuits. At Sinai, the exquisite vision that they had of myriads of angels marching in formation under God s banner provided the children of Israel with a sublime ideal to strive for on earth. After witnessing the possibilities that exist for humans in acting as God s agents in the world, they were overcome by a restlessness that could not be assuaged until they were, as a people, allowed to take up the divine banner that made it unmistakable to themselves and to the world that they were sanctified for a divine task.

This was no impulsive childish fascination with ostentatious glitter. Quite the contrary--it was a mature commitment to a sacred religious mission.

In modern nation states, it is normally assumed that all citizens and institutions are subsumed under a single flag. This is not not quite the situation that is described in the Torah. Although the people marched and encamped with an elaborate co-ordination that expressed their unity of purpose, their flags were not identical. According to the tradition adopted by Rashi, each tribe had its own distinct flag, decorated to reflect its special characteristics. This is in keeping with the military model, where each division has its own insignia, to distinguish it from the other divisions who are fighting on behalf of the same authority.

The diversity of the banners comes to teach us that there are many different ways of carrying out our holy tasks in the world. Each person has different opportunities, different talents and unique personal characteristics. All of those myriads differences can be channelled to the performance of mizvot, acts of kindness and justice. It is through the mobilization of all those diverse human qualities that the world will be redeemed.

According to the standard Jewish practice, the Torah section of Bemidbar is normally read shortly before the holiday of Shavu ot, when we commemorate the great revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. There is no more suitable time to relive the experience of our ancestors who strove to emulate the heavenly hosts in their single-minded determination to carry their divine mission.

May we also prove worthy, as we encamp in the world or march through its spiritual wilderness--to serve our sovereign under banners of holiness and purity.

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My e-mail address is eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

*Delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, Calgary, June 4, 2005.