“The Israelites are to camp around the tent of meeting some distance from it, each of them under their standard and holding the banners of their family.” — Numbers 2:2
The Torah portion for this week is Bamidbar, which means “in the desert,” from Numbers 1:1–4:20, and the Haftorah is from Hosea 2:1–22.
In this week’s Torah portion, we learn that the Israelites were assigned specific locations in their camp surrounding the Tabernacle which rested in the center. We can easily understand the idea that each tribe needed a space of its own, and that God, in His great wisdom, placed each one in a space that suited its spiritual place and role within the nation. We also are told that each tribe possessed a tribal banner or flag. What was the purpose of the flag and why did God command that each tribe possess one?
For most of recorded time, we discover that flags, or banners, have been a part of history. They have marched with armies through wars, and they have been raised in territories that have been claimed. They have served as a beacon of pride and ownership of the nations that raised them. Flags have even been to the moon!
But what is the source of the Israelites’ use of flags? It wasn’t like any other nation’s use of flags at all. The Jewish sages teach that when God gave the Torah to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, 22,000 ministering angels were present, and each angel bore a flag.
While we admittedly don’t know much about angels, there are a few things that we are told. One is that no angel can have more than one mission. The flags the angels carried represented their particular purpose or mission. This is what the nation of Israel saw and what they desired. They wanted a flag for each tribe which would define the nature of each tribe and describe its role and mission among the nation.
This clarity of purpose is something to which we all can relate. One of the most powerful prayers that a person can offer is for God to reveal his or her personal mission. At one time or another, many of us have prayed that God would work through us and use us for His purposes; that we would be able to make a meaningful contribution to the world in a way that only we can.
When God created us, He had a purpose for us. Once we understand our personal and unique talents and abilities, life becomes much simpler. Decisions are easier and we make better life choices. Ultimately, we live more effective lives, instead of wasting our time on meaningless pursuits. We have fulfilled and satisfying lives, knowing that we are doing exactly what we have been put here to do.
Try this short exercise: If you had a personal flag, what might it look like? Many of the tribal flags contained colors, animals, objects, or plants. What might symbolize your life’s mission? Creating a visual that encapsulates our life’s goal can help keep us focused and living with purpose.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President