Parashat Bamidbar tells of God’s commands to Benei Yisrael regarding their arrangement during travel and when encamping. These instructions included the assignment of a special banner, or flag, to each tribe (2:2).
The Midrash, in a famous passage (Bamibdar Rabba 2:2), tells that this command was given in fulfillment of Benei Yisrael’s wish: “At the time the Almighty appeared at Mount Sinai, 220,000 angels descended with Him, and they were all arranged in banners… When Israel saw that they were arranged in banners, they started desiring banners…” God granted Benei Yisrael their wish, and commanded them to carry special banners as they traveled. Many writers addressed the question as to the special significance of these banners, and why Benei Yisrael desired to have banners like the angels.
Rav Yitzchak Kunstadt, in his Luach Erez, suggests that carrying a banner symbolizes leadership and influence. Standard bearers during war represent the army, and also lead the soldiers who can see the banner from a distance and thus find their way. (Indeed, the term “standard bearers” has been adopted to refer to leaders and figureheads generally, people who represent and direct a certain movement or cause.) At the time of the Revelation at Sinai, Rav Kunstadt explains, Benei Yisrael saw that all the angels carried banners. They were all “standard bearers,” worthy and capable of exerting influence, each in its own distinctive way. Benei Yisrael’s desire for banners was the desire to wield influence, to have an impact upon others, a desire they assumed they could never satisfy because they felt that not everyone can be an influential figure. In the idyllic conditions of the heavenly sphere, every angel carries a “banner,” fulfilling a vital role that has a profound impact. Benei Yisrael longed for this privilege, of each person carrying his or her own banner, exerting positive influence.
God announced to Benei Yisrael that He was granting their wish, instructing them to carry banners “le-veit avotam” – “according to their father’s home.” Rav Kunstadt explains this to mean that although the vast majority of people are unable to serve as “standard bearers” for the entire nation, or even for large groups of people within the nation, we are all capable of wielding influence “le-veit avotam,” within our own circle of family and friends. We are far from the perfection of angels, but we are still worthy of carrying banners, because we are worthy of positively influencing those who are close to us, the people in our close circles. This is the meaning and significance of the banners.
Each and every one of us is able, and required, to carry a “banner,” to lead in our own unique way. Only very few people will lead in the sense of public leadership, but this does not mean that the rest of us are absolved of the responsibilities of leadership. We are all obliged to lead and inspire by example, to try to live as positive role models whom the people in our lives can admire and seek to emulate, and in this way we have a significant impact upon the world. Each person has somebody or several people in his or her life whom he or she can positively influence, and so we must all see ourselves as “standard bearers” who are called upon to guide and inspire, so together we can make the world just a bit better.