The Factors Unifying Bnei Yisrael
Summarized by Matan Glidai
Translated by Kaeren Fish
"Each man of Bnei Yisrael will encamp by his own flag, with the emblems of their father's house" (2:2). We may ask, why did Bnei Yisrael wait until the second year to organize themselves into this special formation according to tribal and family flags? Why did they not do this immediately upon leaving Egypt?
The flags represent the uniqueness of each tribe. Each flag was in the color of the tribe's stone in the Kohen Gadol's breastplate, and this flag expressed the tribe's characteristics. The ordering of Bnei Yisrael by standards and emblems teaches us that the tribes differ from one another and that each is special in its own way. But in order to express this uniqueness, it was necessary to wait until the second year. First of all, the nation as a whole had to be unified and consolidated, and only thereafter could there be any discussion of the individual characteristics of each tribe. The individuality of the tribes had to be based on some common denominator.
When Am Yisrael reached Har Sinai, we read, "And Israel encamped (in the singular) there facing the mountain" (Shemot 19:20), and the famous interpretation of Rashi, quoting the Midrash, is: "Like one man with a single heart." Rashi emphasizes here the very great level of unity that they had attained. We recite, as part of the Haggada of Pesach, "Had He brought us close to Har Sinai but not given us the Torah, it would have been sufficient for us." What would have been the value of being brought close to Har Sinai without receiving the Torah? The reference here is to the consolidation of the nation prior to the revelation, rather than to their physical proximity to the mountain. Even if they had not received the Torah, there would still have been great value in the tremendous level of unity that they attained.
This unity was expressed in more practical terms with the erection of the Mishkan. The Mishkan was a unifying factor among the nation. The entire nation camped around it and gathered towards it on several occasions. This too may explain why the encampment by flags began only in the second year. The Torah itself tells us, "Each man of Bnei Yisrael will encamp by his own flag... around the Ohel Mo'ed" – once there is an Ohel Mo'ed, then the nation may encamp around it in tribal formation. First there must be something around which they are unified, and only then can each tribe display its own special standard.
There are other factors that unify Am Yisrael. One is the Torah, as Moshe teaches the nation after he has made the covenant with them concerning the words of the Torah: "This day you have become a nation to Hashem your God" (Devarim 27:9). Another such factor is Jerusalem. In Tehillim (122:3) we read, "Jerusalem, built up as a city that is all joined (chubra) together," and the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni) explains, "It is a city that makes all of Israel friends (chaverim)." We may also interpret this in halakhic terms: even the simple folk are considered "chaverim" – scholars - when they make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (for matters of ritual purity, ma'asrot, etc.). It seems that the holiness of Jerusalem and its significance cause the simple people to be more careful in their halakhic observance when they make a pilgrimage (see Chagiga 26). But this Midrash can also be understood in philosophical terms: there is something metaphysical in Jerusalem that brings about the unification of Israel. We see that Jerusalem is truly a matter of consensus among Am Yisrael; even those who were far removed from Torah and mitzvot were tremendously excited when Jerusalem was liberated in the Six Day War.
It is interesting that just as Am Yisrael needs Jerusalem as a unifying factor, Jerusalem also needs the nation. We recite, in our Kabbalat Shabbat prayers, "Shake yourself, get up from the dust, adorn yourself with the garments of your glory, O my nation." Many believe that this is an appeal to Am Yisrael, for it ends with the word "ami" (my nation), but then it is unclear why it the call is formulated in the feminine. Rather, this is clearly a call to Jerusalem, which is mentioned previously in the same prayer ("Sanctuary of the King, Royal city"). We call to Jerusalem to arise from the dust and to adorn herself with the garments of her previous glory. According to this perception, it is the garments of Jerusalem's glory that are referred to by the word "ami." Am Yisrael is the glory of Jerusalem. When Am Yisrael make their pilgrimage there and dwell there, then Jerusalem is glorified.
(Originally delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Bamidbar 5756 .)