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Parashat Bemidbar 5756



In this week's Parasha the Torah begins to describe in detail the journey of the Bnai Yisrael through the desert, on their way from Mount Sinai to the Promised Land. During their journey, the twelve tribes encamped in formation. They formed a huge square around the Mishkan (= Tabernacle, or portable Sanctuary), with three tribes on each side of the square. One of the tribes in each group was designated as the flag-bearer of the group. It was assigned a banner, or flag, under which the three tribes encamped. The four flag-bearing tribes were: Yehudah to the east, Reuven to the south, Ephraim to the west and Dan to the north. (According to the Midrash, the other tribes were assigned flags as well. Nevertheless, these four were the primary flag-bearers.)

The Torah gives us no indication as to the significance of this formation, nor as to what appeared on these flags. However, Ibn Ezra provides us with some fascinating information in this regard.

There were figures depicted on each of the flags. Our Sages tell us (see Bemidbar Rabba 2:10 -MK) that on the flag of Reuven was the figure of a person. This is to recall the incident where Reuven found Dudaim -- a type of flower whose blossoms resemble the figure of a person -- in the field and brought them to his mother (Bereshit 30:14). (It is interesting to note that the word "Dudaim" is spelled with the same Hebrew letters as "Adam," or "person." Furthermore, the precious stone which represented Reuven on the Kohen Gadol's breastplate was "Odem," which is spelled exactly like "Adam" in Hebrew -MK.) The flag of Yehudah had the figure of a lion on it, for it was to this animal that Yehudah was compared in the blessings that his father gave him (ibid. 49:9). (This, as well as what follows, appears to be the Ibn Ezra's own addenda to the Midrash. -MK) The flag of Ephraim had the image of an ox on it, based on the verse that compares Yosef, Ephraim's father, to an ox (Devarim 33:17 -- see also Bereishit 49:6). Dan's flag pictured an eagle. (The Ibn Ezra offers no explanation for the connection between Dan and an eagle. See, however Rashi, Shemot 19:4 s.v. Al, and Rashi, Bamidbar 10:25, s.v. Me'asef. -MK) Thus, the four flags resembled the Divine Chariot of Hashem that was seen by the prophet Yechezkel in his vision (Yechezkel, Ch. 1; see esp. 1:10), which featured the images of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle.
(Ibn Ezra, Bemidbar 2:2)
The four flags of the Israelite camp bore the same four symbols as the celestial Beings who bore the Divine Chariot. What is the significance behind this intriguing resemblance?



Ibn Ezra does not reveal the source for his interpretation, but the Ramban (ibid.) cites a Midrashic source for Ibn Ezra's words:

"Just as Hashem created the four points of the compass, so did He surround His Throne with the likenesses of four celestial Beings, and so did He command Moshe to organize the camp of the Bnai Yisrael into four flag formations"
(Bemidbar Rabba 2:10).
We may call attention to another interesting Midrashic source for Ibn Ezra's words:

When Hashem appeared on Mount Sinai, He descended with 22,000 angels, as it says (Tehillim 68:18), "The chariot of God was tens of thousands and thousands of angels... at Sinai." These angels were divided into camps, each bearing flags, as it says (Shir HaShirim 5:10), "He is ... beflagged with the ten thousands." When the Bnai Yisrael saw this formation, they desired to have such flags for themselves. They said, "How we wish we could be divided into flag-bearing camps also!" ... Thereupon Hashem said to Moshe, "Go divide them into flagbearing formations, as they desire."
(Bemidbar Rabba 2:3)
The "chariot" of 22,000 angels that the Bnai Yisrael saw at Sinai can undoubtedly be identified with the Divine Chariot seen by Yechezkel. The formation of the angels into "camps" is apparently a reference to the four "faces" of the Chariot. When Hashem saw that the Jewish People desired to have a similar formation for their own camp, He instituted a system which corresponded exactly with the Chariot's arrangement -- using the same images of man, lion, ox and eagle.



The Midrash quoted above requires some explanation, however. Why should the Bnai Yisrael have *envied* the flag-bearing camps of the angels -- what is so special about having flags? And why do the angels themselves make use of flags?

The answer is that when a person or a contingent carries a flag or a banner, it is a proclamation of the fact that they are the faithful legions of the king. (Actually, the Midrash [Bemidbar Rabba 2:7] tells us that the kings of the world took the idea of having their legions bear flags from the flags of the Bnai Yisrael in the wilderness!) The flags borne by the angels thus demonstrated that they were the faithful legions of Hashem.

The Bnai Yisrael envied the unique status of the angels. They expressed the desire to be themselves designated as the faithful legions of Hashem, who would further His objectives on this world. The Midrash (Bemidbar Rabba 2:3) in fact says that the flags were given to the Bnai Yisrael "so that they would be 'recognized.'" The flags were meant to demonstrate to all that their bearers were the chosen people of Hashem. This, too, is what is meant in the Midrash's statement (ibid. 2:4) that the flags were a mark of "prestige and greatness" for Israel.



On a deeper level, just as the bearers of the king's flag are distinguished by the august standard that they display, so is the king's honor enhanced by his legions' display of the royal banner.

A king's throne demonstrates his glory and splendor. But this permanent display of royalty is limited to a single location -- the king's palace. The king's beautiful chariot likewise displays his grandeur. This display, however, is mobile. As the royal chariot transports him from place to place throughout his kingdom, it displays the king's eminence to all who behold it. Perhaps the "Divine Chariot of Hashem," then, is a metaphor for that vehicle which expresses Hashem's glory and power to humankind.

But what is this vehicle which proclaims the glory of Hashem on earth? The Rambam addresses this issue:

What can bring a person to experience the love and fear of Hashem? When a person contemplates the wondrous works and creations of Hashem and sees the infinite wisdom that is involved in these creations, he is immediately overcome with a sense of love for Hashem. He intensely desires to become more familiar with His greatness.... And when he considers these things he suddenly recognizes the fact that he is but an insignificant creation, with inferior intelligence, standing before the One of Perfect Knowledge.
(Rambam, Yesodei HaTorah 2:2)
We can appreciate Hashem's glory, the Rambam tells us, by studying the amazing intricacies of nature that surround us.

The highest, most intricate form of nature is life -- or animal life, to be more specific. The four categories of living beings to which man has an ongoing, daily exposure (to the exclusion of the fish kingdom, with which we do not have extensive contact) are represented by the four images of the Divine Chariot. The lion is the "king" of the wild animals, the ox is the chief among the domestic animals, the eagle is the master of the avian world, and man, the pinnacle of all forms of life, is of course in a class of his own. By contemplating these four sections of the animal kingdom, which represent the highest and most complex forms of nature, a person can develop an appreciation of Hashem's glory. In this sense, these beings are the banner-bearers of Hashem. They foster an awareness of His presence and His glory in the world.

This is the mission of the four beings of the Chariot which aroused the Jewish people's envy at Mount Sinai. The Jews expressed their desire to personally participate in the mission of proclaiming Hashem's glory and presence to the world. Hashem acceded to their request -- He gave them the Torah and rested His Divine Presence upon them in the Mishkan. From now on, it was through the Bnai Yisrael that Hashem would show His glory to the world. As the Rambam tells us elsewhere (Sefer HaMitzvot, Aseh #3), the manner in which a person may be brought to love Hashem with all his heart is through studying His Torah and its Mitzvot

Perhaps this, too, is what is meant by the statement that "the patriarchs (Avraham, Yitzchak and Yakov) were Hashem's Divine Chariot" (Rashi, Bereshit 17:22). The patriarchs were the vehicles through which Hashem's name became known throughout the world, as long as they lived. Wherever they went, they "called out in the name of Hashem" -- that is, they proclaimed the message of Hashem's dominion, and taught the world to follow in the ways of Hashem (Bereshit 12:8; 13:4; 21:33; 26:25; 33:20, Rashi ibid. 12:5). Thus, the patriarchs could truly be called the "Chariot of Hashem."

As long as the Temple stood and the Jewish People were in their own land, the Jews remained the bearers of the standard of Hashem. After the destruction of the Holy Temple and the exile of the Jewish People from their land, the presence of Hashem among us was no longer readily apparent to the nations of the world. The four faces of the Divine Chariot reverted to being the symbol of Hashem's glory once again. This is the reason that the prophet Yechezkel, who saw his vision of the Divine Chariot *after* the destruction of the Temple, perceived the four animals as being the Chariot of Hashem.

May we soon merit to see the return of Hashem's glory to His nation, that the entire world may realize His sovereignty.

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