Parshat Bamidbar: Each Man Under His Banner

Each Man Under His Banner

Naama Frankel is the Rosh Beit Midrash of Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Lod Branch

Rabbanit FrankelIn the first two chapters of the portion of Bamidbar, we are given a description of a census taken in the desert for the purpose of counting the Children of Israel ahead of their entering the Land of Israel. These chapters also give a meticulous account of the very orderly fashion in which the Israelites camped in the desert and the order in which they set forward on their journeys.

“And the Lord spoke unto Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying: Take you the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, by their polls; from twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel: you shall number them by their hosts, you and Aharon… the children of Israel shall camp by their fathers’ houses; every man with his own banner, according to the ensigns.  They shall pitch their tents from a distance all about the tent of meeting.”

The Book of Bamidbar opens with the People of Israel on the eve of entering the Land of Israel.  This is their second year in the wilderness and they are as yet unaware that because of their imminent sin with the spies, they will have to face another 38 hard, albeit informative, years of wandering. 

Only a short while before, right after the Sin of the Calf, the People of Israel were counted, which led the exegetes to ask – why must the people be counted again in our portion?  No war had taken place in the interim, nor any plague, so there shouldn’t have been any demographic change since the previous census was taken.

Rashi, in his well-known commentary on this matter, says as follows: “Because of His [God’s] great love for them, he keeps counting them.  When they left Egypt – He counted them; when they were smitten following the Sin of the Calf – He counted them to see how many remained; when He came to dwell in their midst – He counted them.  On the first day of the month of Nissan the Mishkan was erected, and on the first day of Iyar He counted them.”

Rashi says two things here.  Firstly, God counts the people because He loves them.  Much like a man who has something he loves and keeps examining it.  Secondly, the people are counted every time something significant happens: after the exodus from Egypt – the moment of their “birth”; after the Sin of the Calf – a moment of crisis; and now when God’s glory is about to descend and dwell in the midst – a formative moment of newly-gained maturity and a higher level of spirituality that had not existed beforehand. 

The Sefat Emet offers a different explanation for this population count:

“As to the count of every head… every Jew has the knowledge and the ability to grasp the greatness of God according to his level; and each person’s awareness is unique.  This is in keeping with what is written in the Mishnah – we give praise to the Creator for creating each human unique, different in form and feature from all others, although all are descendants of Adam.  And in the Midrash on the portion of Pinchas it is written thus: in much the same way that no two people’s features are identical, so, too, their minds and intellect are distinct, and each person perceives things differently…”

According to the Sefat Emet, the aim of the census was to give expression to the greatness and uniqueness of the People of Israel.  The census taken here was like no other population count – which is usually done for the purpose of counting the number of warriors in the event of a war, or for determining the size of the population in order to establish its needs and the resources required for its upkeep etc.  However, the population count in our portion, says the Sefat Emet, is very different: it is personal; it focuses on the family; it is a part of a greater calling.

“Take the sum of all the congregation of the Children of Israel…

…by their families

…by their fathers’ houses

…every head of each person

…every man unto his banner…”

All the circles of mankind are present here: the individual, the family, the tribe, etc.

The Sefat Emet teaches us that every child of Israel has a great purpose; every person radiates something of the Divine light which no one but him can bring to the world.  Every person perceives things differently, and has a unique calling in this world. 

There is a lovely excerpt from HaRav Kook which can serve to highlight this very notion: 

“A person who learns Torah gives an individualistic expression to the Torah’s wisdom, as it is imprinted in his own soul.  Surely, the new light that is formed when the Torah connects to one person’s soul is unlike the light that is formed when it connects to another individual’s soul.  This means that any time a person studies, the Torah is glorified further.  And since it is the Almighty’s will that the Torah be exalted eternally, the most appropriate way to study Torah is out of the love one feels for the great Divine light.  For it is God’s will that man discover His presence, which becomes further glorified every time an individual connects to it.  All the more so, when one is able to bring to light new Torah insights – in such case the Torah is glorified doubly so.”

In other words, HaRav Kook teaches us that every person who learns Torah has an obligation to introduce new ideas to the world through his Torah learning, and offer new insights of Torah.  The reason being that every individual has life circumstances and experiences that are unique to him; no man’s social or family background is identical to another’s; nor are any individual’s strengths or weaknesses utterly indistinguishable from those of another individual.    

It follows then, that should the individual Torah learner not bring to light his personal insights, he would be failing to fulfill a significant obligation – making God’s presence in the world manifest on every possible level.  For none but he can illuminate God’s presence and the Torah through the unique light with which he was blessed.

Rabbi Soloveitchik expands on this idea:

“Only if we accept the notion that every individual has a mission and a special calling, can we begin to understand why every human being is born into special life circumstances, at a specified time, and lives in a specific period of time, in a distinct location.  Only God knows where to place each individual, and at which time, so that he might fulfill his calling, despite his shortcomings, with the energies and capabilities given him.  Individual circumstances are not random; they are predetermined and customized so that the individual can best fulfill his life’s calling.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik teaches us that the profoundness of God’s presence is this world is not only manifest through the learning of Torah.  The population count was conducted in the fashion that it was in order to remind the People of Israel, a moment before they enter the Land, that this was not a mere settling down in the hope of finding some tranquility; nor did entering the land simply entail the worship of God.  Rather, every individual has a unique mission and no person is replaceable at any given time or place.  When one fulfills his calling, he exposes another angle of God’s divine light in this world. 

Let me end with a verse that appears at the beginning of chapter two of our portion:

The children of Israel shall camp in accordance with their fathers’ houses; every man with his own standard, according to his ensigns.  They shall pitch their tents from a distance all about the tent of meeting.”

Rashi explains:

“‘…his own standard, according to his ensigns’- every standard, or flag, had its own unique emblem, with its special color, which was the same color as the tribe’s gem on the choshen [the gem-filled breastplate worn by the High Priest], so that one tribe could be distinguished from the other.  Another explanation: ‘…in accordance with their fathers’ houses; every man with his own standard’ – in accordance with the signs and symbols passed down by Yaakov their father, when they took him and brought him down to Egypt.  As is written (Bereishit, 50): ‘And his sons did to him as he had commanded them…'”.

Rashi, in his commentary, hints at the fact that not only does the individual have a significant and exclusive role to play, but so does every tribe.  Besides the fact that each tribe had its own flag, which also symbolized the tribe’s essence, each tribe had its own calling, passed down from one generation to another, going all the way back to Yaakov Avinu.  In fact, every tribe or clan, or any group comprised of connected individuals, has the ability to fulfill much more than any individual calling, by the virtue of its unity and connectedness.  A group of connected individuals can create numerous circles of impact that serve to enhance and enrich God’s light in this world. 

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