the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Yom Yerushalayim—Waving the Flag
At the beginning of this week’s reading, G-d commands
Moses: “Take a census of the whole
Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral homes, listing the names
[lit. according to the number of names], every male, head by head” (Num.
1:2). Let us examine this unusual
expression: “According to the number of
names.” This expression seems like an
oxymoron, for it concerns two opposites.
A person’s name expresses the hidden inner essence (Rabbi Meir used to
base interpretations on names; Genesis Rabbah
42.5). A person’s name is individual,
belongs only to him or her, and attests his or her essence; but number
expresses quantity, size. A soldier in
an army receives a number, his individual personality being erased as it were,
turning him into a cog in the wheel. In
This oxymoron that appears with regard to the census of the Israelites in the desert serves to emphasize the value of the individual within the whole community. The character of the private individual is not engulfed in the generality. Quite the contrary, each and every individual is revealed in his own color within the people of Israel. This is also the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, who is revealed on two levels at once, as the following two verses make clear: “He reckoned the number of the stars; to each He gave its name” (Ps. 147:4). “Lift high your eyes and see: Who created these? He who sends out their host by count, Who calls them each by name: Because of His great might and vast power, not one fails to appear” (Is. 40:26). The Holy One, blessed be He, exercises absolute control of the overall number while paying attention to the individual quality of each.
The place of the individual within the generality finds expressions in other ways, as well. Consider, how are we to identify many individuals who all belong to a single group? How are we to know that they have common objectives, that they all work together to promote a single goal? Can this be explained without words? Yes, if we make use of flags. Large commercial enterprises have logos, or symbols that identify them, and they are punctilious about using them. Similarly, a flag is used as a symbol, identifying a country, a body-public living in a certain place. The sportsmen and women in any international sporting event are identified by their national flag, without need for any verbal addition. This basic level of flags exists in every nation, society, and public group. The flag serves as a national logo. A logo serves not only as the identifying mark of products, such as automobiles, but can, in the shape of the flag, also identify the bearer with his or her nationality, a group that lives together according to its own rules, in a certain place: “The Israelites shall encamp troop by troop, each man with his division and each under his standard” (Num. 1:52).
The special logo of the Jewish people is not only an identifying sign that connects the person who bears it with the nation of Israel. Whoever bears a flag has the duty to help promote the ideas for which the flag stands. Our national flag reminds us of our duty of combining sanctity with heroism, both in our lives as individuals and as a nation. The people of Israel is not merely a collection of individuals comprising a whole, like any national linguistic grouping, rather it is a whole that finds expression in its individuals. The role of the individuals is to elevate, move forward and propel upwards the wonderful thing that we call the people of Israel, to make it into a light unto the nations, to carry the teachings of the Torah forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. The flag reminds us of the great ideal of the Jewish people. We are supposed to identify with this ideal, to live by its principles and to promote the idea that the flag expresses: “May we shout for joy in your victory, arrayed by standards in the name of our G-d” (Ps. 20:6).
Much of this, in highly elevated fashion, is told by the Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 2.3; Tanhuma Numbers, 14):
When the Holy One, blessed be He, was revealed on Mount Sinai, two hundred and twenty thousand angels came down with him, as it is said (Ps. 68:18), “G-d’s chariots are myriads upon myriads, thousands upon thousands.” And they were all arrayed by banners (Heb. degalim), as it is said (Song 5:10), “Preeminent (Heb. dagul) among ten thousand.” As soon as the Israelites saw them, arrayed by their banners, they began to wish for banners and said, would that we were arrayed by banners, as they are.
Of course the angels wished for the Torah to remain in their hands (Shabbat 88b). However, the giving of the Torah led to confusion not only in heaven. The Israelites, on earth, when they saw the angels, wished to be like them: “Would that we were arrayed by banners, as they are.” An angel, serving as an emissary, is totally effaced by his mission. When the Torah was given, each and every individual wished to become a banner, the ambassador of the Holy One, blessed be He, in this world. All the individuals, by their very essence of their existence, wished to proclaim to the world the coronation of the Holy One, blessed be He, over all that exists. The Midrash concludes (Tanhuma, Buber ed., 14): “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: in this world you wished to have banners, and I have given you your desire; in time to come, by the merits of these banners, I shall redeem you.” The aspiration of each and every Jew to serve as a living banner for the Holy One, blessed be He, in this world will, G-d willing, hasten Redemption.