the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
“Each with his division, each with his standard”
Honor of the Flag and
Rabbi Dr. Isaac Krauss
Midrasha for Women
The book of Numbers, which describes the great journey of
the people of
According to the plain sense of the text, it appears that determining the arrangement of the Israelite camp was done to create order in such a large camp. That is how Rashi explains the phrase, “Each with his standard, under the banners”: “Each standard ( degel) was to have a sign, a colored banner, hanging from it. The color of each banner would be different from the next, each color matching the hue of its stone in the breastplate, so that each person would recognize his standard.” In other words, the division was two-fold: “Each man with his division” ish ‘al mahanehu--was a division into camps, with three tribes in each camp, and “each with his standard” –ish ‘al diglo--was a tribal division. According to Rashi, each standard, i.e., each tribe, had a sign – a “colored banner” (or flag, in our way of speaking), and this identification sign would help everyone find his place of encampment in the wilderness.
The homilies of the Sages indicate that flags have another significance (Midrash Rabbah (Vilna ed.), ch. 2):
Each with his standard, under the banners – as in
the verse, “Who is she that shines through, etc.” (Song 6:10).
The Israelites were holy and magnificent
encamped with their flags, and all the other nations would look at them in
wonder, saying, “Who is she, etc.” The
nations then said to them, “Turn back, turn back, O maid of Shulem,”
draw close to us and come to us and we shall make you rulers and
hegemons, dukes and governors.
“Turn back, turn back, that we may gaze upon
you [Heb. ve-nehezeh]” –gazing here means ‘we
shall empower you’, as Jethro said to Moses, “You
shall also appoint” [Heb. tehezeh] (Ex. ).
“Turn back, turn back, that we may gaze upon you,” [they say],
What is the great thing that the nations of the world are
incapable of doing for
The term degel, which in modern Hebrew means “flag,” has several meanings. According to rabbinic interpretation, it indicates a group of people who have a common ideal and are united in a single group, as the midrash says: “Degalim means none other than troops” (Exodus Rabbah ch. 15.7). The Israelites were indeed enviable when they stood in organized formations, as the above Midrash brought out. However the objective of the Israelites to be formed in organized groups is different from that of other nations. The source of their desire to be organized as “troops” is brought out in the following Aggadah, also from Numbers Rabbah, loc. sit:
When the Holy One,
blessed be He, was revealed on Mount Sinai, twenty-two ten thousands (a myriad,
revavah) of angels descended with him, as it
is said: “G-d’s
chariots are myriads upon myriads (ribbotayim),
thousands upon thousands” (Ps. 68:18), and they would all assemble in troops,
as it is said: “Preeminent [Heb. dagul; a play
on the word degel] among ten thousand [
merevavah]” (Song 5:10).
When the Israelites saw that the angels were
arranged in troops, they said: Would
that we were arranged in troops like them…
The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them:
If you so crave to be arranged in troops, by
your life, I shall fulfill your desire (Ps. 20:6):
“May the Lord fulfill your every wish” (Ps.
20:6). Immediately the Holy One, blessed
be He, informed
The author of the biblical commentary Maor ve-Shemesh, Rabbi Kolonymos Epstein, tried to fathom this midrash aggadah (Numbers, s.v. ba-midrash):
If we say that they desired to serve the Lord, blessed be He, like the angels, why did they need to be organized like troops? . . . Moreover, we need to understand what ‘flags of the angels’ means. Did they have flags of cloth?
The answer to this question lies in additional implications of the term degel. This is how Rabbi Ephraim Solomon ben Aharon of Luntshitz, the Kli Yakar, explains the Israelites’ craving for degalim:
It seems to me that
What the Israelites wished for in their formation as troops was to serve as the banner and standard of the Holy One, blessed be He, in the world. Therefore they did not settle for military formations and troop standards like all other nations, which are but human groupings. The aim of the Israelites was to fulfill here, on earth, the function of the ministering angels above, who call in the name of the Lord, to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6).
In light of the Kli Yakar’ s ideas, we can understand the following homily that describes the reciprocal relations between Israel and the Holy One, blessed be He: “‘Thus the Lord delivered [Heb. va-yosha] Israel that day’ (Ex. 14:30)– it says va-yosha [verb ambiguous if we disregard the vocalization], as if the Israelites were being delivered and as if He were delivered; ‘In the name of our G-d we set up our banner’(Ps. 20:6) – for the Holy One, blessed be He, laid His name on our name and made us into banners (degalim)” (Numbers Rabbah, ch. 2).
A flag is one of the trappings of sovereignty. In the midrash we read: “When the Israelites came out of the sea, the Holy One, blessed be He said to Moses: Form them into troops ( degalim, marching under a banner) so that they march with the pomp and ceremony of royalty” (Deuteronomy Rabbah Lieberman, parashat Devarim, 16). A people liberated from bondage waves a flag as an indication of their liberty; thus the Israelites did after the splitting of the Red Sea, according to Nahmanides’ commentary (Ex. 14:8): “That is the meaning of ‘the Israelites were departing with upraised hand’ –they made themselves a flag and banner to wave on high, and they left singing joyously, playing drums and harps, as people delivered from bondage to freedom, not as slaves who are destined to return to the toil.”
The rebirth of the people
At the behest of our
leader Herzl, I cam to
In 1978 a group of yeshiva students asked Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah ha-Cohen Kook of blessed memory “a boorish question,” as he called it, regarding the attitude toward the Israeli flag. This is what he answered:
I was pained and upset
to see the letter from you and in the name of your friends, regarding the
boorish question whether attributing sanctity to the flag of the State of
Israel should be interpreted as coming under the injunction, “nor shall you
follow their laws [the laws of the gentiles].”
You, my dear ones, ought to wholly repent and turn back from this
distorted path. In line with the guidance
and sacred instruction of Nahmanides, “father of
Yehudah’s letter is indicative of a national
religious perception of Jewish rule in the
Let me conclude by citing Dr. Zerah Wahrhaftig, who was among those who fought to establish traditional Jewish symbols for the new State of Israel: “Symbols should not be taken lightly. They provoke thought and concealed longing for the tradition of past generations, for origins and originality, magical chords that maintain the unbroken chain bonding together past, present and future.” 
Wolfson, “The Flag and the Shekel,” L. Yaffe
(ed.), Sefer ha-
Shanah la-Kongress ha-
(Jubilee Book in Honor of the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the First Zionist
 From a manuscript that I have. Due to lack of space, I have omitted his warm words of conclusion. The letter was first published by Rabbi Shimon Golan, Dappei Iyyun le-Parashat ha-Shavua, Parashat Be-Midbar, Efrat, 1999.
 Wahrhaftig, loc. sit. P. 489.