Amitai Ben Nun
Former Shaliach in Cape Town
In Parashat Bamidbar, the Torah describes the encampment of the Jews in the desert. God instructed Moshe (Numbers 1:52), “The Children of Israel shall camp troop by troop, each man with his division (machanehu) and each under his flag (diglo).” 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, the color of the tribe’s gemstone in the choshen (breastplate). That way everybody 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. Rashi is of the opinion that each flag, meaning each tribe, would have a sign – a colored sheet of cloth (in our terms, a flag). This identifying symbol would help each person locate his camping place in the desert.
In the Midrash we find a further elucidation of the significance of flags. In describing the revelation of God to the Jews at Sinai, the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 2) says that 220,000 flag-bearing angels descended with Him. When the Jews saw them, they too desperately wanted flags. The Midrash continues: “God said to them, ‘You want to make flags? By your life, I will fulfill your wish!’ This fits with the verse, ‘God will fulfill all your requests’ (Psalms 20:7). Immediately, God told Israel about them by saying to Moshe, ‘Make the flags which they want.’”
We need to understand: first, what did the Jews see that caused them to want flags? Furthermore, what would angels be doing with flags?
The Kli Yakar relates to our first question and explains why the Jews wanted flags:
It seems most reasonable to me that the primary reason the Jews wanted flags was to show all the nations that the Jews are called by God’s name. This would cause them to be in awe of the Jews (see Deuteronomy 28:10), 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 war, and the flag represents God’s name because they did not conquer the land through their own might, but rather through the Name of God. Similarly, every living being is in awe of the angels because they surround the Celestial Throne of the blessed God, like the verse in Song of Songs 6:10, “as awe-inspiring as the ones with flags (nidgalot).” . . . . Regarding this it says, “Let us wave our flags (nidgol) for God” (Psalms 20:6). This means that we should raise high the flag of majesty and victory in the name of God all over the world.
The Children of Israel wished to be a banner, i.e., a flag, as a sign and a symbol that God is active in the world. The flag symbolizes the Jews calling in the Name of God. Victory is not the result of our strength but of His. Accordingly, we understand why the Jews wanted to imitate the angels who also call in the Name of God. The Jewish flag is not like the flags of other nations. The Jewish flag has a more profound meaning. This is what led our Sages to reinterpret the verse of “His flag (vediglo) of love was over me” (Song of Songs 2:4) and to put these words into God’s mouth: “The nations have many, many flags, but none is as beloved to Me as that of Jacob, who camped ‘each under his flag (diglo).’”
In recent times, we have merited a national rebirth that includes a flag which expresses our Jewish values. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik specifically addressed the subject of the blue and white flag of the State of Israel:
If you ask me how I, as a Talmudic Jew, look at the flag of the State of Israel, and whether it has any halakhic value, I will give you a simple answer. I am not impressed at all by the allure of a flag or similar ceremonial symbols. Judaism negates the worship of material objects. However, we must not ignore the law in the Shulkhan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 364:4) which says that a Jew who is killed by non-Jews is buried in his clothing, so that his blood will be seen and he will be avenged. This is in accordance with the verse, “I will forgive, but I will not forgive their blood” (Yoel 4:21). In other words, Jewish clothing acquires a certain sanctity when it is stained with holy blood. How much more profoundly does the blue and white flag, which is soaked with the blood of thousands of young Jews who fell defending the land and the Jewish settlement. . . . It has a spark of holiness which flows from their devotion and self-sacrifice. We are all obligated to honor the flag and to relate to it respectfully (The Rav Speaks: Five Addresses).
May we all merit to raise the banner of calling in the Name of God, and to walk by its light. Shabbat Shalom.