Rabbi Yehuda Lapian
Former Rosh Kollel in Greater Washington
“The banner of the camp of the children of Yehudah traveled… Then the banner of the camp of Reuven traveled… Then the banner of the camp of the children of Ephraim traveled…” (Bamidbar 10:14-22)
The Midrash Rabah states:
“When HaKadosh Baruch Hu revealed Himself on Mount Sinai, twenty-two myriads of angels [i.e. two hundred and twenty thousand angels] descended with Him… and they were all arranged by banners, as it says, ‘surrounded by myriads.’ (Shir HaShirim 5:10) When Israel saw that they were arranged by banners, they started to yearn for banners. They said, ‘Would that we too would be arranged by banners like them.’ HaKadosh Baruch Hu said to them, ‘Since you desire to prepare banners, by your lives, I will fulfill your request.’ Immediately, HaKadosh Baruch Hu displayed His love for Israel, and He said to Moshe, ‘Arrange them by banners as they desired.”
Why did Am Yisrael want to be arranged by banners? Also, what does it mean that the ministering angels were “arranged by banners”?
In his commentary on the Torah, R’ Shimshon Rafael Hirsch explains that the word degel (literally, banner) is derived from dekel, the Aramaic term for a date palm tree. Although two date palms can grow very close to each other, they will never touch – just as one kingdom never touches another.
R’ Yehudah Leib Chasman (Ohr Yahel) teaches that unlike humans, angels are burdened with neither jealousy, hatred nor competition. Hence:
“They are all beloved; they are all clear; they are all valiant… They all accept upon themselves the yoke of Heavenly Sovereignty from one another and grant permission to one other.” (From Shacharit)
When one angel transcends another, neither is jealous. Rather, they exalt each other. In contrast, man, who was formed from dust and ruled by his feelings and emotions, is different by his very nature. However, when Bnei Yisrael observed how the angels are unified and united – in spite of the fact that every angel has his own designated rank and attribute – Bnei Yisrael desired that type of unity and harmony as well.
Similarly, the Midrash Tanchuma states:
“This is what is written, ‘Turn away, turn away, O Shulamit.’ (Shir HaShirim 7:1) Thus the nations of the world say to Israel, ‘Turn away, turn away, O Shulamit.’ Cling to us; and come to us; and we will make you rulers, dukes, and governors. And Israel says to them, ‘What will you see in the Shulamit?’ (Ibid) What greatness do you give us? Is it ‘like the dance of the two camps?’ (Ibid) Perhaps the greatness that you can give us resembles that which Hashem our God gave us in the wilderness, ‘the banner of the camp of Yehudah, the banner of the camp of Reuven, the banner of the camp of Ephraim, the banner of the camp of Dan…’”
At first glance, Bnei Yisrael’s response to the nations of the world is difficult to comprehend. After all, the nations offer to makeBnei Yisrael into “rulers, dukes, and governors”. What does this have to do with the banners?
As we suggested above, the banners not only symbolize each shevet’s unique character but also represent the unified whole. Thus, Am Yisrael tells the nations that if we were to join you, we would lose both our uniqueness and our unity. If we were to become rulers and dukes and if each one of us would attempt to rise through the ranks, a schism and a division would surely ensue. No honor or greatness you could bestow upon us would be equal to that which Hashem has granted us: a banner for eachshevet. The banners allow each shevet to be unique, but at the same time, we are all united. However, if we were to cling to you, we would lose this special gift.
May we be privileged to be united and unified, and may we witness the fulfillment of the pasuk:
“‘And Yisrael encamped there opposite the mountain.’ – As one man, with one heart.” (Shmot 19:2; Rashi)