This week’s parsha, Nasso, talks about the three camps in the desert and the laws regarding who could inhabit which camp. In the heart of the encampment was the Machaneh HaShechina, the camp of the Divine Presence, where the Tabernacle was situated. Surrounding this was the Machaneh Leviya, where the Kohanim and the Levi’im encamped as they were the ones charged with the service in the Temple. The third zone was Machaneh Yisrael, which was where the twelve tribes encamped. The Torah tells us that they encamped in a very structured order, in accordance with their respective tribes, and that each of the twelve tribes had its own flag with a unique design.
Flags are a meaningful emblem. Every country has its flag and people look towards a flag for a sense of identity. The encampments of the twelve tribes discussed in our parsha were marked by the flags representing them. The Midrash on last week’s parsha details exactly what each of the twelve tribes’ flags looked like. The Midrash also tells us how they got these flags in the first place: when G-d came down on Mount Sinai, the people saw a vision of hundreds of thousands of angels descending, all carrying flags. When the people saw the angels’ flags, they wanted flags as well and so G-d gave them the tribal flags.
Why were the flags so important to them? What did the flags represent?
Flags represent our being G-d’s officials
Rav Yerucham Levovitz of Mir, one of our great rabbinic thinkers of the twentieth century, explains that the angels carrying the flags appeared to the people as Hashem’s royal guards, like a king’s most important officers who carry out his requests. The Jewish people saw the angels’ glory of being in the royal guard and they, too, wanted to be in Hashem’s royal guard.
As we know, we relate to G-d both as our King and as our Father, as we say in the davening during the High Holidays, Avinu Malkeinu, “our Father, our King.” On Rosh HaShana, in Chazarat HaShatz – the Chazan’s repetition – we say this as well: Im kevanim, im ka’avadim. If we are like children, have pity on us like a Father, and if we are like servants, our eyes turn to You for You to pardon us, like a King. In reality, G-d is both. Obviously, Hashem is above all human categorisation and is complex beyond anything we can imagine, but from a human perspective, we have two different ways of relating to Him – as our Father and as a King.
Rav Yerucham says that our relating to G-d as King does not mean that we are lowly subjects who merely obey His decrees. Rather, we are his important officers, his personal ministers and soldiers. In human terms, a king – or any leader, for that matter – is an individual; and in order to get his work done and keep his country functioning, he needs ministers, councillors, officers and soldiers to assist him in his tasks. So, too, G-d has set up the world in such a way that He does not do everything required to run society on His own, but calls upon us to carry out these tasks and ensure that the world run the way it should. He “needs” us, so to speak. He could have set up the world in such a way that He would manage everything by Himself. But He purposely didn’t because he wants our involvement. Flags represent the kind of relationship with G-d whereby He is our King and we are not only His subjects but His officiers and soldiers who help Him do His work.
For example, take the mitzvah of chesed, of loving kindness. G-d has set up the world in such a way that we have to perform acts of kindness; the world doesn’t take care of itself. If there is a person who is sick, we have to go and visit him or her. Although G-d is close to every person and, as the Gemara says, His presence is particularly felt near the sick, in practical terms, we have to perform the mitzvah of visiting the sick, bikkur cholim, on His behalf. Similarly, if someone passes away, who is going to prepare the body for burial? Who is going to ensure that there is a dignified funeral? G-d delegated these tasks to us. He “needs” us, so to speak, to comfort the mourners, bury the dead, help the poor. Who is going to give the poor the money they need? Or the care and concern to the person in distress? Who is going to perform the great mitzvah of hachnasat kallah, of helping a destitute bride and a groom get married? Another task which is also very important to Hashem is that Torah be learned and taught. Who is going to do that if not us? Who will build Jewish schools and support Torah education? We have to. As G-d’s officers, ministers and councillors, we have been appointed to ensure that His work in the world get done.
Rav Yerucham explains, based on a verse that says Tnu oz l’Elokim, “Give strength to G-d,” that we give strength to G-d, so to speak. Once again we are using human terminology to better understand G-d even though He is unknowable. G-d could have set up the world in such a way that He wouldn’t need us. But He set it up in such a way that we join Him in His work. We are not lowly subjects being given instructions which we must fulfil obediently. Rather, G-d wants us as part of His team.
The flags represent the fact that we are the royal guards, the royal entourage accompanying the King, the officers and councillors who do G-d’s work. When the Jewish people saw the angels carrying the flags in that prophetic vision at Mount Sinai, they saw the glory of what it means to be an appointee of the King, and that’s why they wanted the flags, and so Hashem gave them their flags. When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, he planted an American flag. When mountaineers get to the top of a mountain, they put up a flag. The flags in the desert represented our pride in being appointed to serve G-d.
Guarding that which is sacred
It goes one step further. In the encampments described earlier, the Mishkan, the Sanctuary, was in the centre, with the Levites and the priests surrounding it, and then the twelve tribes surrounded them. This structure has a military feel to it, with everyone in strict formation in accordance with his tribe’s particular flag. Yet it all revolved around the Mishkan at the centre, representing their defence of holiness and goodness in the world. They surrounded the Mishkan, guarding and defending that which is sacred.
This is part of the holy task of being Hashem’s officers, ministers and soldiers. Interestingly, once the Temple was built, the Levites and the Kohanim actually had guard duty in shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They guarded all the entrances so that the Temple was never left alone. The Ramban, Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, explains on last week’s parsha that a king cannot have his palace left unguarded, and so the Levites served as the guardians of the King’s palace. The Sefer HaChinuch explains that the reason the Levites stood guard wasn’t just for the Temple’s security, but rather it was to show the honour and grandeur of Hashem’s palace.
Rav Yerucham says in addition to the honour and glory, the guard duty was about defending Hashem’s values. Our task in doing G-d’s work is not only about doing mitzvahs but also about defending that which is sacred and important. Defending the Torah’s eternal, holy values requires a lot of effort and energy because the Torah is oftentimes under attack. Sometimes the Torah is subject to attack from external forces, like Amalek, the archenemy of the Jewish people, who represents the evil forces of the world and against whom, says the Torah, there will be a battle for all generations. Sometimes the Torah is under attack from internal forces, as people battle against their evil inclination. This, too, is part of our role in being the royal guards of Hashem. We have to give honour to Hashem and his Torah, and also be willing to defend the holy values which He has given to us and protect them from people who wish to undermine them.
Flags represent our pride and sense of achievement
Flags represent our pride in being Hashem’s officials, as well as our willingness to defend His principles. But they are also a sign of victory and achievement, an assertion that we belong to something greater than ourselves. We are not lowly subjects who simply obey His instructions. Rather, we are His proud officers and soldiers. We have a sense of pride in knowing that Hashem has faith in each of us and has therefore appointed us to do His holy work in the world. G-d asserted this when He gave us the Torah. He said, Va’atem tihiyu li mamlechet kohanim vegoy kadosh, “and you will be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” In the same way the Kohanim served in the Temple and taught the people, so too, in a broader sense, the entire Jewish people are charged with being a kingdom of priests, serving G-d throughout the world, and making a difference.