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Banners In The Desert: Common Purpose and Individual Esteem 

05/14/2021 09:43:07 AM


Rabbi Barry Gelman

There is a stark contrast between how Bnei Yisrael went out of Egypt and the way they travelled in the wilderness. 

Upon leaving Egypt, there was a sense of pride and excitement. The Torah testifies to this when it says: (Ex: 14:8)

וּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל יֹצְאִ֖ים בְּיָ֥ד רָמָֽה׃ 

As the Israelites were departing defiantly. 

We also read (Ex. 13:18)

וַחֲמֻשִׁ֛ים עָל֥וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם

Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt.

When they arrived at Har Sinai, three months after leaving Egypt, Bnei Yisrael were united. (Ex. 19:1-2)

בַּחֹ֨דֶשׁ֙ הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֔י לְצֵ֥את בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם בַּיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה בָּ֖אוּ מִדְבַּ֥ר סִינָֽי:

In the third month of the children of Israel's departure from Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai.

וַיִּסְע֣וּ מֵֽרְפִידִ֗ים וַיָּבֹ֨אוּ֙ מִדְבַּ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַיַּֽחֲנ֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר:They journeyed from Rephidim, and they arrived in the desert of Sinai, and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain.

Rashi comments on the phrase : ויחן שם ישראל - and Israel encamped there: Heb. וַיִחַן, [the singular form: כאיש אחד בלב אחד - denoting that they encamped there] as one person with one heart.

In this week’s Parsha we read that each tribe was demarcated by a distinctive flag that symbolized the uniqueness of each particular tribe. 

This, in and of itself is important. The Torah is telling us that even as unity and group pride is important,  each Shevet had a special character. Bnei Yisrael was made up of non-identical groups (shevatim / tribes) and each one was important in its own right. This is a beautiful idea. Yet, the timing is odd as noted by Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky (Emet L’Yaakov Parshat Bamidbar). 

He asks why God waited so long (into the second year after the Exodus) to introduce this idea. 

וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד בְּאֶחָד֩ לַחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֜י בַּשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשֵּׁנִ֗ית לְצֵאתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם... 

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt…

Rabbi Kamietzky offers a beautiful answer. It is in fact the case that each flag represented the special character, responsibility and goal of each tribe. And, it is true that individual (tribal) identity is important. But, creating the flag system and distinguishing each tribe also came with the risk of diluting the sense of unity that existed until that point. 

In order to shelter Bnei Yisrael from disunity that may come about with the introduction of the flag, God waited until there was a unifying idea that all of the tribe could rally around - the Mishkan.

In the case of the Mishkan, this was meant literally and figuratively. Bnei Yisrael actually camped surrounding the mishkan. The Mishkan, representing God’s presence within the camp, was always in view of the people and a constant reminder of their common purpose. 

This approach beautifully blends two ideas that are crucial for building community. Unity (common purpose) and individuality. In this case, we are referring to individual tribes, but the same holds true for families within the tribes and individuals within the family.

Communities are strong when they rally around shared ideas and goals. United communities are better able to overcome setbacks and individuals in united communities are willing to stretch themselves (socially, economically) on behalf of the community. Belonging to a community that shares one’s goals can be edifying, inspiring and serve as a change agent.

At the same time, stifling one’s individuality is not a formula for spiritual or social fulfillment (Rav Kook talks about this in the context of learning that which inspires us). People have their unique flags as well. Judaism does not ask us to repress the unique elements of our personality. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (The Netziv) likens Bnei Yisrael to a Garden with many different species growing in it. This is an apt image as all of the different items growing are contained in the same garden.

Emerging from this approach is the notion that each individual has something to give to the community. Open communities are able to recognize those contributions and even inspire people to participate in traditional and more unique ways. This is so important. Since communities have specific financial needs, there is a possibility that only those with the means to help in that area are valued. Welcoming communities are committed to making everyone feel that they do enhance the community, and their efforts are valued. Participation in community comes in many forms. People can lend their professional expertise to help solve communal problems or enhance programming. People can solicit others to join the community. Showing up is a great way to contribute to community stability. Being a social media fan and supporter has emerged as a really important way to spread the news about an organization or event. 

Once there is a common cause, individuals can help in countless ways!

What is our common cause? I believe that as a community we should be focusing on our spiritual growth. Of course, growth in numbers is important, but if we have nothing to show for it spiritually, then what is the purpose of our growth? 

When we look up, we should see Torah and Mitzvot at the center of our camp - as our “Mishkan”. The Torah cause should animate our decisions and be the source of our priorities. We should view ourselves as encamped surrounding the Torah, protecting the Torah. Our common commitment to religious growth is enhanced by the unique aspects and approaches that our community members bring to that endeavour. 

This is a winning combination and one that can lead to great blessing and success. 

Yehi Ratzon, may it be God’s will and ours, that...

נְרַנְּנָ֤ה ׀ בִּ֘ישׁ֤וּעָתֶ֗ךָ וּבְשֵֽׁם־אֱלֹהֵ֥ינוּ נִדְגֹּ֑ל

We shall sing out over your victory and raise our banners (flags) in the name of our God.

יְמַלֵּ֥א יְ֝הוָ֗ה כָּל־מִשְׁאֲלוֹתֶֽיךָ

May God fulfill all of your requests. 

Tue, June 22 2021 12 Tammuz 5781