“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.
A story is told about a Jewish community living in a Middle Eastern country long before the re-establishment of the State of Israel. The ruler of the country decided that he only wanted Muslims in his country – which meant that all the Jews living there had to flee, convert, or be killed. The panicked Jews sent their chief rabbi to try and plead with the sultan.
The wise rabbi approached the sultan and announced that he had a gift on behalf of the Jewish community. He laid out two rugs. One carpet was a beautiful oriental rug with many colors, patterns, birds, animals, and flowers. The other rug was plain red. The rabbi told the sultan that he could have whichever carpet he thought was nicer.
“How insulting!” boomed the sultan. “The colorful rug is obviously more beautiful than the plain one. Do you think I’m a fool?”
“Certainly not,” replied the rabbi. “Which is why I am certain that you also prefer an empire full of many shades of people, not just all the same kind.” And with that, the Jews were saved.
When God gave Moses the rules regarding how the children of Israel would position themselves when they traveled and when they rested, He specified that each tribe was to raise “the banner of their family.” What are these banners and why is it so important that they be raised? Couldn’t they raise one banner representing the nation of Israel?
Each tribe of Israel had its own flag. Each flag had a symbol that was associated with its tribe and those symbols were based on the blessings that Jacob gave his sons before he died. Judah’s flag was sky blue with a symbol of a lion; Levi’s flag had the image of the priest’s breastplate; Benjamin’s flag had a picture of a wolf; and so on. Each flag represented the tribe’s history and their strength. It symbolized their place among the children of Israel and what they contributed to the nation. By raising these flags, each tribe celebrated its own strengths and also appreciated what each other tribe stood for.
While unity is a virtue, it does not have to come at the expense of individuality. In fact, when what makes us different is celebrated, we can become a more powerful whole. Just like the beautiful Oriental rug presented to the sultan, what makes each of us unique only makes the rest of us more beautiful. What kind of music would we make if we all played the same instrument?
Find your instrument and play it out loud in the great symphony of mankind. Raise your flag and make the world a more beautiful place.