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Parshas Bamidbar: Flags Fit For Angels                                                         

The Torah describes the encampment of Bnei Yisroel in the desert. Hashem commanded Moshe, וחנו בני ישראל איש על מחנהו ואיש על דגלו לצבאתם – The Children of Israel shall camp troop by troop, each man with his division and each under his banner [1].

Rashi explains the purpose of the flag: “Every flag shall serve as a sign with a colored sheet of cloth hanging from it. Each tribe’s flag was a different color corresponding to the color of the tribe’s gemstone in the choshen -breastplate- so that everyone was able to recognize his tribal flag.” In other words, the groupings were twofold – “each under his flag,” according to tribe, as well as “each man with his division,” with three tribes in each division.

In modern times there are those who might mistakenly think that the concept of a flag is a not a Jewish notion. Yet, we see the contrary; flags are found in the Torah.

In describing the revelation of Hashem to Israel at Sinai, we find a Medrash [2] that further elucidates the significance of the flags. At that moment 22,000 flag-bearing angels descended with Him. When the Jews saw them, they too desired flags. “Hashem said to them, ‘You wish to congregate by flags? By your life, I will grant your wish!’ Immediately, Hashem told Moshe, ‘Make the flags which they want.”

We need to understand what attraction the flag- bearing angels held for Bnei Yisroel, that they too wished to have their own flags. Furthermore, a flag is a very physical item. Malachim -angels- are entirely spiritual beings. What spiritual meaning could flags have for angels? A suggested interpretation to the significance of flags is that flags can demonstrate the common goal of the group bearing it. (i.e. the armies, the navy, the air force, each have their unique flag.) Every flag somehow identifies the common goal of what their unit represents.

Thus, when we say that the angels came down with flags, it is metaphoric of saying that every angel has an exclusive mission. Hence the flag demonstrates the purpose of the angel bearing it. This also adds to why Klal Yisrael were so passionate in their insistence that they too have flags. When the Jews saw the flags that proclaimed that every angel had a mission and purpose they proclaimed, “If only we too would have such flags!”

This desire to be aware of their ‘tafkid’ –mission – was a great trait of Bnei Yisroel. They fervently yearned for something that would testify to the fact that each of them had a defined purpose, as was the case with the angels. The Almighty responded, “Yes. Every tribe will have its flag, every camp will have its flag. (teaching us that every person has his own unique purpose in his life.)

The Klei Yakar [3] explains that the Children of Israel’s flag was not like the flags of other nations. The Jewish flag has a more profound meaning. Every living being is in awe of the angels because they surround the Celestial Throne of Hashem. Similarly, the Jews wanted flags to show all the nations that are called by Hashem’s name. This would cause them to be in awe of the Jews [4], thus allowing the Jews to hoist the flag of majesty and victory in all four corners of the earth. They would be surrounded [by flags] in all directions, with the Ark and the Divine Presence in the center as the focus of attention.  This is what the flag symbolizes. It is a sign of victory in battle, and the flag represents Hashem’s name and proclaims that they did not conquer the land through their own might, but rather through the Name of Hashem.

Combining these two understandings as to the reason behind the flags, (i.e. the concept that each Jew has a unique purpose, and that the flags stand as the banner of Hashem) we come to the conclusion that every Jew’s unique purpose is in his Divine service to Hashem.

Indeed there are many legitimate paths in the service of Hashem. Each of the Tribes has their own character and later when they came to the Land of Israel, each shevet manifested their differences both in thought and in action. Nonetheless, they were united in their prime purpose; they all wished to serve Hashem and to faithfully do His Will. Respect for others whose way of Avodas Hashem differs from one’s own is critical. The fundamentals of belief, reverence for Torah texts and personalities, and strict observance of halachah must serve as the unifying forces for a multifaceted community.

This is expounded by the fact that the tribal flags were decreed in (Iyar) the second month of the second year [5].  The mishkan – Tabernacle- which served as the spiritual center for all the surrounding tribes was dedicated in (Nissan) the first month of that year.

Through the shevatim’s – tribes – respective banners we see the expression of the distinctiveness of each shevet.

Only after we have achieved the understanding that all of our paths are to serve one common goal, could each shevet wave its own flag without causing disunity. Each shevet made its own unique and distinct contribution to a unified cause, just as the ears and the eyes of a person serve different needs without disunity or strife.

A final caveat: although we must be aware that such creative license and individuality is permissible, and even laudable, it is only for those whose motives are completely selfless and beyond reproach, that is, for one whose sense of mission reflects that of the angels. The angels all accept the Kingdom of Heaven and view their respective roles as critical to the fulfillment of the divine mandate and the sanctification of Hashem. Angels have no personal ambitions, and the angels do not covet the role of the higher beings; no angel strives to become seraph, (a fiery angel,) nor does a seraph aspire to become a cherub (a more lofty celestial being).  On the contrary, each angel delights in the accomplishments of his companion and expresses his love for the other angels’ devotions beause their words and deeds are unadulterated by ulterior motives.

Let us likewise prepare for the upcoming Shavuos festival with the acceptance of the role that Hashem has allocated to us, and with the appreciation of another Jew’s fulfillment of his distinct (albeit different from own unique) goal.

Please feel free to forward this Torah thought to anyone you feel will take pleasure in reading it. Feel free to contact me at with any questions and comments.

Good Shabbos.

Rabbi Dovid Sochet


[1] Bamidbar / Numbers 1:52

[2] Bamidbar Rabbah 2:3

[3] Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz 1550-1619

[4] See Devarim / Deuteronomy 28:10 וראו כל עמי הארץ כי שם ה’ נקרא עליך ויראו ממך  – then all the peoples of earth will see that the Name of Hashem is proclaimed over you, and they will revere you.

[5] Bamidbar / Numbers 1:1, וידבר ה’ אל משה במדבר סיני באהל מועד באחד לחדש השני בשנה השנית לצאתם מארץ מצרים לאמר – Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting on the first of the second month, in the second year after their exodus from Mitzrayim.