Parshat Bamidbar offers us a path to juggle the two conflicting identities of where do my loyalties lie regarding my family and tribe or to my nation? Let’s discuss this.
Parshat Bamidbar Summary
- The Census in the desert
- The Establishment of the Camp of Israel
- The Levite encampment
- The Roles of the Levite families.
Parashat Bamidbar begins the fourth book of the Torah. The book spans a period of 39 years from the beginning of the second year of the Jewish People in the desert until their arrival at the border of the Land of Israel.
Parashat Bamidbar focuses on the establishment of the Machane- the camp of Israel. The Torah lists in great detail the numbers of each tribe and where they were to encamp during their wandering in the desert.
The Torah then teaches us that each tribe had its own flag and sign/ symbol on the flag, “איש על דגלו באתותו לבית אבותם” (Numbers 2:2) The Midrash and the commentators go into great detail to explain and describe what each of the tribes’ flags looked like.
According to the Midrash, as quoted by Rashi, each tribe had a flag with its own colour. The colour matched the stone of the tribe of the Kohein Gadol’s breastplate. For example, the tribe of Reuben had a red flag with flowers. These flowers represented the flower that Reuben brought for his mother, Leah (Gen30:14-15). Shimon was green with the city of Shechem. Levi was white black and red, with the crest of the breastplate. Judah was sky blue with a lion. (Judah is compared to a lion, Gen 49:9).
Each tribe had its own colour and symbol. This helped to forge a tribal identity for each tribe and a sense of belonging and commitment to one’s tribe.
The National Banners
When the Torah describes the structure of the Camp of Israel, the Torah divides the 12 tribes, into four formations, to the North, South, East and West. Each formation had three tribes. Each formation also had its own banner. The banners each had the following letters:
Banner 1: איי
Banner 2: בצע
Banner 3: רחק
Banner 4: מקב
The Chizkuni, (13th Century France) explains that when we take the first letter of each banner we spell the name אברם- Abraham. The second letters spell יצחק- Isaac. and the final letters spell יעקב- Jacob. The names of the Patriarchs.
Parshat Bamidbar: The Lesson
Embedded in Parshat Bamidbar is a powerful lesson about the importance of the individual and the community. The Parasha describes in great detail the establishment of the camp. That every person had their tribe. This generated loyalty for the tribe. Similar to the support that one has for their local sports team. Fans can be very parochial when it comes to supporting their team.
But then the players are elevated to the next level and play for the national team. Suddenly their new team means that they are playing with their main opponents and they need to learn to work together. They have a new uniform, team mascot and team song. The new level means a new identity. One that overrides the local support. Previously they would play against each other, now they support each other.
How Did The Jewish People Balance Their Tribal Affiliations With Their National Commitments?
The answer is found in the banners with the Hebrew letters. By themselves the letters meant nothing. Together they formed the names of the Patriarchs.
The lesson for the tribes was that tribal identity was important, but they must never forget that they are part of a greater whole, the Jewish People. They have a shared ancestry and shared future. The fact that they have the same parents, meant that they would view each other as brothers and sisters.
Arrival At Sinai
Parashat Bamidbar precedes the festival of Shavuot. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah at Sinai. There is an interesting description of the Jews arrival at Mount Sinai. The Torah used the singular form ויחן- and he camped. Rather than the normal form of ויחנו- and they camped. Rashi explains that this was the only time that the Jewish People were acting united with one heart and one mind.
Parashat Bamidbar attempts to balance the sense of individual identity with one’s communal affiliation. When both are aligned we can achieve anything.
Bamidbar, A Story Of Perspective
I saw the following story. Two tradies- Australian for workers in the construction industry- were on a job. The first, let’s call him Joe was working when he saw Jim do the same thing as him, but at a far better level. Jim was actually the best worker there. At that moment Joe had a choice, he can be jealous and antagonistic towards Jim, or he can swallow his pride and ask Jim to teach him how to do the job better. For that is what the owners would expect. Joe swallows his pride and not only does Joe help him, but they also form a close friendship.
Parshat Bamidbar shows, that it is important to understanding who I am. To forge my identity. At the same time, we are part of a larger community and if we realise what the ultimate goal is, we can become even better people by working with others to achieve the national goal.