Thursday, May 9, 2013

Bamidbar - The Lesson of the Degalim

The second chapter of Parshas Bamidbar discusses the division of the Jewish population in the wilderness into four camps, each containing three tribes, surrounding the camp of the Levites,  with the Tabernacle in the center. Each of these four camps was to have a degel - banner - that symbolically represented the tribes within that camp (and, according to many sources, each tribe had its own banner as well).

The midrashim and commentaries discuss the symbolism and significance of these degalim (banners), and the division of the nation into camps, at great length. However, after all the discussion, we still need to understand what purpose there was in dividing up the nation in this manner and assigning each tribe its own symbol.

Many commentaries note that this system, with the regulated division of forces and the assignment of banners and symbols, closely resembles that of a military organization. Some understand this in the simple manner that this was intended to prepare the Jewish nation for military operations upon entering the land of Israel. Nevertheless, it seems self-evident that this was much more than simply a practical arrangement for pragmatic purposes. The midrashim clearly see in this division - "each man by his banner" - a spiritual lesson of profound significance. Indeed, the Medrash Tanchuma (Bamidbar 14) states that our future redemption will be in the merit of the banners (בזכות הדגלים אני גואל אתכם)!

It would seem that the basic message of the degalim was twofold. The first message of the degalim was to symbolize the unique status of the Jewish people as separate and distinct from all the other nations of the world. Thus, just like a military force moves and camps with banners, so that all who see them will know they exist to serve their king and nation, so too the Jewish people moved and camped with banners to declare that they exist to serve God. Thus, the most basic message of the degalim was that we must recognize that, like soldiers, we live to serve God and to obey His every command. It is this which sets us apart from all the other nations of the world. While every human being is obligated to serve God, just as every citizen is obligated to serve his king and nation, a Jew exists only to serve God, and every aspect of his life must be directed to that purpose.

By contrast, the second message of the degalim is that the fact that we all - as Jews - exist for the single purpose of serving God does not mean that we all are expected to serve God in exactly the same way. On the contrary, we see from the degalim that God not only acknowledges the diversity of the Jewish people but actually celebrates it. Every tribe had its own unique strengths and virtues that enabled it to serve God in its own unique fashion. Thus, the tribes camped separately, but were held together by the central camp of the Tabernacle, symbolizing the Torah, which must always remain our exclusive focus. (See my previous post: Noach - The Value of Diversity.)

When, as a nation, we truly internalize the lessons of the degalim, that we all must devote our lives to the service of God - each in our own way - then we will truly merit the coming of the redemption.

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