SALT - Friday, 26 Iyar 5776, Omer 41 - June 3, 2016

  • Rav David Silverberg

            The Torah in Parashat Bamidbar (chapter 2) describes the formation of the Israelite camp in the wilderness, which was arranged in four groups of three tribes, with each tribe assigned its own degel (banner).

            The Midrash, in a famous passage (Bamidbar Rabba 2:3), tells that Benei Yisrael desired special banners for each tribe ever since the time of Matan Torah.  When God descended upon Mount Sinai on that occasion, the Midrash relates, He was accompanied by throngs of angels, and Benei Yisrael noticed how the angels were arranged in groups, each with its own banner.  They desired to be arranged in this manner, like the angels, and God granted their request and commanded that each tribe should have its own special banner.

            Much has been written about the symbolic significance of these banners, but we might suggest that the most crucial point is the fact that Benei Yisrael desired to follow specifically the model of the angels, of heavenly beings.  The idea of a large, colorful banner is to evoke people’s admiration and respect by appealing to the senses, by appearing grand and impressive.  At the time of Revelation, which was a moment of unparalleled clarity, when Benei Yisrael were able to perceive things the way they truly are, without being misled or confused by the vanities of this world, they were impressed and enchanted by only the “banners” of the angels.  They were not drawn or attracted to the colorful and appealing “hype” of other nations and cultures, but rather to the angels, to the spiritual ideals taught to them by God.  At this moment of clarity and a keen perception of the distinction between truth and vanity, the “banners” which appealed to Benei Yisrael were those of the angels.  The “bells and whistles” sounded by the nations of this world did not impress them, as they were drawn solely heavenward, to the angels.   And thus the Midrash Tanchuma, in a parallel passage, comments, “The Almighty said: The pagan nations have many banners, but none are more beloved to me than the banners of Yaakov.” 

The “banners” of the other nations, the grandeur and excitement which they generate, can easily mislead us into thinking that we would be better off following their example and embracing their values and lifestyle.  The Midrash here teaches us that the models we should seek to emulate are the “angels,” the spiritual ideals taught to us at Sinai, and then we will be truly “beloved” to God.