Weekly Parsha Review Laced with Humor and Sarcasm from The Oisvorfer Ruv

Bamidbar 2024: FLAGS

Raboyseyee and Ladies,


According to the heylige Internet and specifically Wikipedia -which seems to know almost as much as Rashi himself (lihavdil), a flag is a distinctive piece of fabric used as a symbol, a signaling device, or for decoration. While the origin of flags is unknown, flag-like symbols have been described as far back as 11th century BC China and have been used by other ancient civilizations such as Egypt and Rome.

During the Medieval period, silk from China allowed a variety of peoples, such as the Arabs and the Norse, to develop flags which flew from poles. Not much has changed; most things are still made in China.  Developments in heraldry led to the creation of personal heraldic banners for rulers and other important people in the European kingdoms. Flags began to be regularly used on board ships for identification and communication in the age of the Sail. In the 18th century and onwards, a rising tide of nationalism around the world meant that common people began to regularly identify themselves with nation-states and their symbols, including flags. In the modern day, every national entity and many sub-national entities employ flags for identification.

While the origin of the flag remains a mystery, the oldest flag discovered is made of bronze: a Derafsh or ‘flag-like’ Shahdad, which was found in Shahdad, Iran, and dates back to c. 2400 BCE. It features a seated man and a kneeling woman facing each other, with a star in between. Ober is all this -any of this- emes? Who cares? And what has all this information to do with Parshas Bamidbar? Let’s find out.

Welcome to Sefer and Parshas Bamidbar which features yet another count of the Yiddin -this topic previously covered- but if you pay close attention, you will find that that the RBSO placed great importance on banners, flags and formations.

Where were the Ois and eishes chayil this past Sunday? At the Israel Day Parade where we and all Jewish New Yorkers should have been, showing our support.  So happens that this year’s parade featured more flags of Israel that I had ever seen before; one very large group of marchers were collectively holding at least 700.

So gishmak to see. Flags did their job: Instantly, they engendered warm feelings for the state. And that raboyseyee is the topic of the week: banners and flags, perhaps the first ones ever. Seemingly, the RBSO also likes seeing flags. Mamish?

And the emes is azoy: There’s something remarkable about flags. A simple pole typically of wood, ober lav davka (not necessarily so) with a designed fabric attached, can immediately inspire within us intense feelings of camaraderie. Similarly, other flags, instantly bring on feelings of revulsion. Liberals want Supreme Court Justice Alito to recuse himself from certain cases because a flag was spotted flying upside down outside his house. Cleverly, like Odom (Adam), he blamed the mishap on his wife. Gishmak. In today’s times, the wrong flag makes one an instant enemy. Friend or foe is often decided based on what is depicted on the flag.

Going back some 55 years, the heylige Ois has warm memories of color war in sleepaway camps; it was the highlight of the camping experience. Each team -typically red or white- would work diligently on their banner and flag. The bottom lines: in hyntige tzytin (today’s times), flags carry very strong associative connections. Ober, is this a new phenomenon? Not! Seemingly, their connective capabilities were clear even in the times of Moishe, specifically in the midbar (wilderness) where it appears that the RBSO Himself declared that the heylige shvotim (tribes) needed to rest and be identified by their unique flags.

The RBSO ordered that each sheyvet was to be encamped and arranged in a specific and that a flag distinguish it from others. Moreover, aside from the individual flags of the shvotim, each grouping surrounding the Tabernacle had a different flag or banner. As an aside, for this parsha, we will use flag and banner and treat them alike since we don’t know with certainty that they were different.

Says the heylige Toirah in our parsha Bamidbar 2:2, azoy:

“אִ֣ישׁ עַל־דִּגְל֤וֹ “בְאֹתֹת֙ לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֔ם יַחֲנ֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל,

The Children of Israel shall encamp, each by his division, with the flagstaffs of their father’s house.”

It so happens that flags litter the parsha, appearing a total of six times. These flags are not insignificant; throughout the parsha, and the rest of Sefer Bamidbar, the camps of the Yiddin are described as “flags.” The word “degel” (flag and seemingly to also include the word banner), appears 13 times in this sefer, and is never mentioned in any of the other books of the entire heylige Toirah. Another factoid: Outside of Sefer Bamidbar the root word degel only appears five other times in all of Tanach. Which means what? Seemingly, the word degel/flag is inextricably linked to the nature of the Jewish camp.

We learn that the Yiddin traveled through the wilderness arranged in a fixed formation, like a troop of soldiers or a marching band. At the center of the camp was the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting with the holy ark, surrounded by the encampment of the Leviyim (Levites). The other twelve shvotim (avada you recall that each of Yoisef’s sons had his own sheyvet, thus the total of 13) were arranged on all four sides of the Levite-encircled Tabernacle, with three on each side. Yehuda, Yishochor, and Zevulun to the east, Reuvain, Shimon, and Gad to the south, Ephraim, Menashe, and Benyamin to the west, and Dan, Asher, and Naftali to the north.

In case you’re wondering why the shvotim were arranged in this particular formation, not to worry because the medrish is here to tell us what the RBSO decided not to share.

The first flag belonged to the tribe of Yehudah which was situated on the eastern side. Yehuda was flanked by the tribes of Yissachar and Zevulun.

The second flag belonged to the tribe of Reuven which was positioned on the southern side. Reuven was flanked by the tribes of Shimon and Gad.

The third flag belonged to the tribe of Ephraim which was located on the western side. Ephraim was flanked by the tribes of Menashe and Binyamin.

The fourth flag belonged to the tribe of Dan which was placed on the northern side. Dan was flanked by the tribes of Asher and Naftali.

Let’s check out Rashi who cites the medrish  (Medrish Tanchuma 12) who says that the tribes were positioned around the Mishkan in the same formation as the sons of Ya’akov when they carried Ya’akov’s coffin to be buried in Canaan. Ya’akov instructed his sons how to carry his coffin. Ya’akov delegated each son to a different position around his coffin. Ya’akov promised them that if they would carry his coffin in the precise way that he told them, they would deserve to be positioned around the Mishkan with their perspective flags in the same formation. The sons obeyed his instructions (Bereishis 50:12-13), and the tribes in the midbar were given flags. Promise made by Yaakov, promise kept b the RBSO. Gishmak. And that’s why Raboyseyee, you need to learn medrish. They have license to fill in lacunas left by the RBSO in His heylige Toirah.

Each sheyvet had to create a flag that typified that tribe, decorated in vibrant hues. Says who? Let’s check out Rashi on posik 2:2 where he writes azoy:

 כָּל דֶּגֶל יִהְיֶה לוֹ אוֹת, מַפָּה צְבוּעָה תְלוּיָה בוֹ, צִבְעוֹ שֶׁל זֶה לֹא כְצִבְעוֹ שֶׁל זֶה, צֶבַע כָּל אֶחָד כְּגוֹן אַבְנוֹ הַקְּבוּעָה בַחֹשֶׁן וּמִתּוֹךְ כָּךְ יַכִּיר כָּל אֶחָד אֶת דִּגְלוֹ

“Every division shall have its own flag pole, with a colored flag hanging upon it. The color of each flag was unique, different from that of any other tribe. Each flag corresponded to the color of that tribe’s stone in the High Priest’s breastplate. And by this means everybody will be able to recognize his flag”

That way everybody was able to recognize his tribal flag.” Were the flags then used only to help the Yiddin find their individual places, to find their way back to their respective tribes after a night out visiting different tribes? Seemingly! In other words, the groupings were twofold – “each under his flag,” according to a person’s sheyvet, as well as “each man with his division,” with three tribes in each division. Rashi is of the opinion that each flag, meaning each sheyvet, would have a sign – a colored sheet of cloth (in our terms, a flag). This identifying symbol would help each person locate his camping place in the desert. Givaldig!

There’s more: Each flag was distinct, yet each was critically important.  Just as the Koihen Godol could not enter the Holy of Holies missing one stone from his choishen, the Mishkan could not be moved if one sheyvet was missing from the encampment; brotherhood at its finest. The colors of each flag corresponded to the emblematic color of that sheyvet’s stone in the koihen godol’s (high priest’s) breastplate. Tribe members would then see their flag and know to encamp beneath it, as instructed by the RBSO to Moishe and Aharoin in the parsha. Let’s read the words again: “The Israelites shall camp each with his flag, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting.”

And the questions? Vus epes flags and or banners? Are they the same thing? Why would the RBSO want the Yiddin to march and or rest alongside their individual flags? Was cold war about to break out? Not, ober the RBSO ordained that each tribe must raise a special flag, bearing its own unique insignia, over their camp. Ober, the next kasha (question) is this:  Why were the encampments known by the pretty pictures hanging above them? Why were flags needed in the first place? The bottom line: the RBSO never told the Yiddin why they were to have flags and banners. That being stated as fact, the heylige Toirah itself describes the encampment of the Yiddin in the desert. The RBSO instructed Moishe (Bamidbar1:52), azoy: “The Children of Israel shall camp troop by troop, each man with his division (machanehu) and each under his flag (digloi).”

Shoin, Rashi -above- already told us what the flags looked like and their purposes but why did the RBSO demand flags?

Let’s check out the medrish where we find this further elucidation of their significance. In describing Matan Toirah (Revelation where the RBSO presented Himself on Har Sinai), the medrish (Bamidbar Rabbah 2) tells us what unfolded, or in this case, unfurled. This is mamish gishmak to read: Seemingly, 22,000 flag-bearing malochim (angels) descended with Him. A parade of malochim accompanied the RBSO as He revealed Himself to the Yiddin? So says the medrish and who are you to argue? Were you there? Case closed! What happened next?  When the Yiddin saw them, they too desperately wanted flags. They had flag FOMO. Well blow me down ober what happened next? Not to worry, the medrish has more:  The RBSO said to the Yiddin azoy:  You want to make flags? By your life, I will fulfill your wish, and shoin, the flag industry was born and today every nation has flags. As an aside, if you are a Jeopardy aficionado, you zicher know that ‘FLAGS’ come up as a category quite often. Wait, there is more!

And that all being said, we still need to chap what the Yiddin saw that caused them to want flags? Furthermore, what would angels be doing with flags? Are they physical beings that march around with flags? What’s pshat 22,000 accompanied the RBSO at Revelation? A flag is a very physical item. Angels are entirely spiritual. Why would angels need flags? Furthermore, what was the strong desire that the Yiddin had for flags?  Says the Nesivos Shalom azoy: flags demonstrate the mission (tachlis) of every single group. And taka, it’s emes.  The army has its own flag, the navy has its own flag, the air force has its own flag. Every branch of the service has its own flag. Every flag somehow identifies what the unit or group is all about. When our sages tell us that angels came down with flags, it is a way of saying that every angel has its own mission and purpose of existence. The flag demonstrates what the malach is all about. This also explains the tremendous passion that the Yiddin had for flags. When they saw the flags that proclaimed that every malach had a mission and purpose they proclaimed “Halevai (if only) we too would have such flags!” They strongly desired something which would testify to the fact that each of them had a defined purpose, as was the case with the angels. The RBSO responded “Yes. Every tribe will have its flag. Every camp will have its flag.

As an aside, mamish a few days ago the Ois read this quote from Theodore Herzl, who in 1896 said and wrote this: “We have no flag, and we need one.” And the bottom lines?

Flags have always played a role in statecraft. In our parsha, flags organize the Yiddin as they travel through the midbar; in later Jewish history, impromptu flags, often used on Simchas Toirah, were symbols of Jewish solidarity. In the ancient world, flags, ensigns and banners played a critical role in warfare, where they took on extraordinary importance; capturing the enemy’s flag was an act of heroic valor, and a humiliation for the opponent. In modern times, flags are primarily a national symbol.

And we close this rather short review with this: another medrish (Tanchuma) says azoy:


אָמַר לָהֶם הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה, נִתְאַוֵּיתֶם לִדְגָלִים, וּמִלֵּאתִי מִשְׁאֲלוֹתֵיכֶם. וְלֶעָתִיד לָבֹא, בִּזְכוּת הַדְּגָלִים אֲנִי גּוֹאֵל אֶתְכֶם, וּמְדַלֵּג עַל הַקֵּץ בִּזְכוּת אָבוֹת שֶׁנִּקְרְאוּ הָרִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: קוֹל דּוֹדִי הִנֵּה זֶה בָּא, מְדַלֵּג עַל הֶהָרִים, מְקַפֵּץ עַל הַגְּבָעוֹת (שה״ש ב, ח

G-d said to them (the Children of Israel): In this world you desired for flags (for your tribes) and I fulfilled your request. In the future, because of the merit of those flags I will redeem you.


Though the flags of our parsha represent divisions within the camp -each sheyvet had its own unique color and look- these very flags ultimately wove together a tapestry of colors and perspectives. Together they added vibrancy and beauty to the collective.  The Yiddin survived their differences and made it over to the promised land. Now would be a good time for the RBSO to make the words of the medrish come to life.


A gittin Shabbis-

The Heylige Oisvorfer Ruv

Yitz Grossman


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