Waving the flags of a free nation

We had no plans at all to liberate any more of Israel, content to leave the majority of it under continued foreign occupation. But G-d had other plans.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Israeli flags at the Kotel
Israeli flags at the Kotel

On the 1st of Nisan 2449 (1311 B.C.E.), Moshe had erected the Tabernacle (Exodus 40:1), and the nation was then ready to begin the sacrificial service. The Book of Leviticus, replete with the laws of sacrifices and the Tabernacle, is the natural continuation of the Book of Exodus.

The Book of Leviticus spans one month – the month of Nisan. In that month, G-d gave us 247 mitzvot – most of them concerning sacrifices.

And now, a month later on the 1st of Iyyar, the Book of Numbers continues the narrative, opening with Hashem giving the command to get ready to break camp and continue on our journey towards the Land of Israel:

“Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month of the second year of their Exodus from the land of Egypt, saying: Take a census of the entire congregation of the Children of Israel… Hashem spoke to Moshe and to Aaron saying: The Children of Israel shall encamp, each man by his flag with the designs of their fathers’ house; surrounding the Tent of Meeting, at a distance, shall they encamp” (Numbers 1:1-2, 2:1-2).

The Ramban, in his introduction to the Book of Numbers, expounds:

“After having clarified the sacrifices in the third Book [Leviticus], the Torah now begins, in this Book, with the order of Mitzvot concerning the Tent of Meeting… This Book is full of temporary Mitzvot which applied only while they were in the desert; also the miracles which were wrought for them, in order to tell of all Hashem’s wondrous works that He did for them. It relates how He began to destroy their enemies before them by the sword , and how He commanded them how the Land was to be apportioned between them ”.

The Book of Numbers opens a year after the Exodus and concludes over thirty-eight years later, with the vivacious and invigorated nation proving itself worthy of inheriting the Land of Israel, poised to enter the good Land which G-d had promised.

This is the Book which bridges the gap between the generation of slavery and the generation of the Land of Israel, the Book which records how a nation mired in slave mentality developed into a free nation.

Hence it is appropriate that Parashat Bamidbar begins with the census: the most fundamental defining characteristic of a nation is its self-awareness of its common identity, its awareness of mutual responsibility. A census is a definitive method of transforming a loose agglomeration of unconnected individuals into a single unified entity.

In the words of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch:

“This fourth Book…shows us the actual relationship between the actual nation and the ideal of their calling [which is defined by the sacrifices] in the third Book. Accordingly it begins by having the individual members of the nation counted, but as a congregation, as one body united by this calling. By such a census, it is brought home to the government that the united nation is no mere vague conception, but exists in this universal calling of its members; and it is brought home to the individuals that each one of them is reckoned as an important member of that nation, and that the national mission reckons on the faithfulness to duty, and conscious devotion to the common calling of all, of each individual” (Commentary to Numbers 1:1).

And after finishing all the details of the census, the Torah immediately continues by commanding the entire nation to encamp, each tribe identified by its flag. A flag is the most vivid visual identification of a nation.

As the Midrash says, “Every single tribal leader had an emblem – a flag; and the colour on each flag was like the colour of the precious stones that were [on the Breastplate] over Aaron’s heart. It was from them that all the kingdoms learnt to make flags” (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:7 and Tanhuma, Bamidbar 12).

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah ibid.) proceeds to describe each of these flags:

Reuben’s flag had mandrakes on a red background. Simeon’s flag depicted Shechem on a green background. Levi’s flag was one third white, and one third black, and one third red, with the Urim and Thummim drawn on it. Judah’s flag resembled the heavens, with a lion drawn on it. Issachar’s flag showed the sun and the moon over a background of black with a blue hue. Zebulun’s flag showed a ship on a white background, since “Zebulun shall dwell by the sea-shore” (Genesis 49:13). Dan’s flag was coloured similar to a sapphire, with a snake was drawn on it, because “Dan shall be a snake along the way” (Genesis 49:17). Gad’s flag was a mixture of black and white, with an army camp drawn on it, following “Gad – a troop shall troop over him” (Genesis 49:19). Naphtali’s flag’s colour was like that of clear wine, a pale red, and a hind was drawn on it, following “Naphtali is a hind sent forth” (Genesis 49:21). Asher’s flag depicted an olive-tree on a background the colour of a precious stone with which women adorn themselves. Joseph’s flag was coloured jet-black, and his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, each had their own variant: Ephraim’s flag depicted an ox, and Manasseh’s flag a re’eim. And the colour of Benjamin’s flag resembled the colours of all the twelve flags, and on it was drawn a wolf, because “Benjamin is a devouring wolf” Genesis 49:27).

We can picture this nation-in-the-making, a scant year after the Exodus, generations of slavery and oppression still seared into their memory, eager to be on their journey to Israel their homeland, gazing with pride at their flags glinting in the bright desert sunlight clustered around the Tent of Meeting – the locus of their very identity. Each Tribe’s identity was emblazoned on its flag – a depiction either of Jacob’s blessings to their ancestors (Genesis 49), or of a historical event which had shaped their particular tribal identity.

The population census provided the basis for government, and the flags were the visible emblem of national identity. And with these two elements firmly entrenched into the national consciousness, the nation was ready to leave Mount Sinai and begin the journey to the Land of Israel, which journey would begin just twenty days later (Numbers 10:11).

There would still be delays and setbacks along the way – the most terrible of all being the sin of the spies, which would delay the nation’s course to independence in its homeland by an entire generation.

But from this day henceforth, we would be irrevocably a nation, bound together and responsible for one another, conscious of our common past and our common destiny, aware of our national mission. Our national identity, forged in the harsh desert heat, would survive all the vicissitudes of exile, of persecution, of homelessness, of slaughter.

And, as with that first generation of the desert, even in the deepest exile we would always continue on our way back to the Land of Israel, there to wave the flag of a free nation once again.

This takes on special significance in our generation:

We took the census and waved those flags on the first of Iyyar, and we resumed the journey to Israel on the 20th of Iyyar. This year we read Parashat Bamidbar on the final Shabbat of Iyyar (in exile, due to the extra day of Pesach outside of Israel which fell on Shabbat, Jewish communities are one week behind Israel in the Torah-reading, and will therefore read Parashat Bamidbar on the first Shabbat in Sivan).

Iyyar – the month in which we revived our national independence in our Land, the month in which we again raised our flag as a free nation in our Land.

Iyyar: אִיָּיר, which very name alludes to the two tremendous national events of this month. The first half of אִיָּיר is אי, indicating אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל, the Land of Israel, which was partially restored to us on the 5th of Iyyar 5708 (15th of May 1948). And the second half of אִיָּיר is יר, indicating יְרוּשָׁלַיִם, Jerusalem, which was restored to us on the 28th of Iyyar 5727 (7th of June 1967).

This year, as with all leap years, we read Parashat Bamidbar during the three-and-a-half week period between יוֹם הָעַצְמָאוּת (Israel Independence Day) and יוֹם חֵרוּת יְרוּשָׁלָיִם (Jerusalem Liberation Day). Indeed this year 5779, as Shabbat Parashat Bamidbar finishes, יוֹם חֵרוּת יְרוּשָׁלָיִם begins.

The Haftarah for Parashat Bamidbar is Hosea 2:1-22, which opens: “The number of the Children of Israel will be as the sand of the sea which can be neither measured nor counted...”.

The obvious connexion with the Parashah is that Parashat Bamidbar opens with the census in the Sinai Desert, numbering the Children of Israel at 603,550 Jewish men aged 20 and above, and the prophet foresees the time when the Children of Israel will be too numerous to count.

But I suggest another, less obvious, connexion.

Hosea’s prophetic ministry spanned the final decades of Israeli independence (the northern kingdom), about a century-and-a-half before Judea (the southern kingdom) was conquered.

Both kingdoms were in severe decline, and against this backdrop G-d told Hosea:

“Your children have sinned! [Hosea] should have responded: They are Your children, the children of those whom Your favoured, children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob! Shower Your mercy upon them! Not enough that he did not say that, he even said to Him: Lord of the World! The entire world belongs to You – exchange them for another nation!” (Pesachim 87a).

This was not the appropriate response expected of a prophet.

And so G-d said: “What shall I do to this old man? – I will say to him: Go and marry a harlot, who will bear you children of harlotry! And after that I will say to him: Send her away from your presence! If he will be able to send her away, then I too will send Israel away” (ibid.).

Sure enough, the Book of Hosea records that G-d’s first charge to Hosea was: “Go, take for yourself a wife of harlotry and children of harlotry, because the Land has assuredly gone whoring away from Hashem” (Hosea 1:2).

Obeying G-d’s charge, Hosea “went and took Gomer daughter of Divlaim, and she became pregnant and bore him a son” (v. 3).

The Talmud (ibid.) interprets her name “Gomer” to have explicit sexual connotations – that everyone had relations with her (the verb “gomer” means “finish, complete”, and the secondary sexual meaning is retained in modern Hebrew).

Gomer bore Hosea three children: a son, Yizre’el (Jezreel), connoting that G-d would soon exact punishment for the spilt blood of Yizre’el and put an end to the Israeli monarchy; a daughter, Lo-Ruchama (Not-given-compassion), connoting that G-d would no longer have compassion on Israel (though He would still have compassion on Judah); and another son, Lo-Ammi (Not-My-Nation), connoting that Israel was no longer G-d’s nation and He was no longer their G-d.

Despite the unflattering names of these children, and despite Gomer’s faithlessness to her husband Hosea, the prophet was bound to them with such love that he forgave them all their flaws. Of course he could not drive away his wife and children whom he loved.

And thus he realised how G-d could never drive away the Children of Israel in perpetuity. Yes, He could delay their return to the Land of Israel for forty years; yes, He could exile them from their Land; yes, He could subject them to horrific punishments for their faithlessness.

But He would never reject them entirely.

Only a leader who had experienced the pain of faithlessness, of betrayal by the woman he loved, could faithfully represent G-d’s undying love for His faithless children.

The Haftarah finishes with the G-d’s resounding promise that He and His children would yet return to be reunited: “And I will betroth you unto Me forever; and I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, in loving-kindness and in compassion; and I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness – and you will know Hashem” (Hosea 2:21).

These words are of course instantly familiar to anyone who puts on Tefillin: they are the words that a Jew says as he winds the Tefillin-strap three times round his middle finger, symbolising the wedding ring that the groom puts on his bride’s finger.

G-d indeed had not rejected His nation. Yes, we had been in exile for close on 2,000 years. Yes, even when we finally re-established independence in our ancestral homeland it was only in a fraction of the historical Land of Israel.

And we had no plans at all to liberate any more of Israel, content to leave the majority of it under continued foreign occupation.

But G-d had other plans, and nineteen years after independence, He forced us to fight for Israel, even against our will. And ever since then, successive governments of Israel have offered, pleaded, cajoled the surrounding Arab states to take back the land which they lost.

Contemporary with the prophet Hosea was the prophet Isaiah, who depicted G-d as רַב לְהוֹשִׁיעַ, “mighty to save” (Isaiah 63:1), which phrase has been integrated into our daily prayers.

I cautiously suggest that we might just occasionally read this as רָב לְהוֹשִׁיעַ. The difference between רַב, “mighty”, and רָב, “He fights”. G-d is not only רַב לְהוֹשִׁיעַ, “mighty to save”, He also רָב לְהוֹשִׁיעַ, “fights to save”. He fights to save Israel from their enemies – even, when necessary, when that means fighting against Israel’s own determination not to win.

As the Ramban (cited above) notes, the Book of Numbers recounts numerous miracles which G-d performed for us on our trek through the Sinai Desert to Israel.

And in our own generations we have witnessed, with our own eyes, how He still performs these miracles for us, here in our homeland, independent once again in the Land of Israel.