“The Children of Israel shall encamp, each man by his banner according to the insignia of his father’s household, at a distance surrounding the tent of Meeting shall they encamp.” (Bamidbar 2:2) 

Rashi explains that each banner was dyed a particular colour, corresponding to the 12 coloured gemstones on the High Priest’s breastplate, each of which was engraved with the name of one tribe. This way, a member of any tribe, seeing the flags from a distance, could easily recognise his camp and move in that direction. Ibn Ezra adds that besides the colours, each flag had a unique symbol representing the particular tribe. The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:7) describes each of these symbols:

Reuben’s flag had mandrake plants (dudaim). These were the same plants that Reuben brought home for his mother, Leah (Bereishit 30:14). Shimon’s flag had a picture of the city of Shchem, which Shimon and Levi had conquered when the prince of the city kidnapped and violated their sister, Dinah (Bereishit chapter 34). Levi’s flag had a picture of the holy parchment (urim v’tumim) that was inserted into the fold of the High Priest’s breastplate (see Shmot 28:30). The Cohanim are an offshoot of the tribe of Levi. Yehudah, the royal tribe, had a flag with the picture of a lion on it (Bereishit 49:9). Yissachar’s flag had a picture of the sun and the moon. This tribe produced many members of the great Sanhedrin who calculated the months and years of the Jewish calendar based on the revolutions of the sun and the moon. Zevulun’s banner had a picture of a trading ship. The members of this tribe were avid sea merchants and, with the profits of their sales, they supported Yissachar’s Torah scholars (see Bereishit 49:13 and Devarim 33:18). Dan’s flag had a picture of a viper on it. Jacob compared this tribe to a snake that attacks the ankles of a horse causing the rider to topple off. This was a prophetic vision of Samson, a member of the tribe of Dan, who pulled down the Philistine temple causing those above to fall down and die (see Bereishit 49:49:17 with Rashi). Gad’s flag featured a drawing of a military camp. This tribe produced mighty warriors that would march first to battle (see Bereishit 49:19 and Bamidbar 32:17). Naphtali’s banner had a picture of a swift hind. They were very fast runners and the fruits of their territory were quick to ripen (see Bereishit 49:21). Asher’s flag was adorned with the picture of an olive tree. Their province produced the best olive oil in Israel (Devarim 33:24). Joseph’s flag featured a drawing of an Egyptian city for he had been viceroy in that country for many years. Ephraim, one of the ‘sub-tribes’ of Joseph, had a flag with a picture of an ox. Moshe compared Ephraim to an ox when he blessed the tribes prior to his death (Devarim 33:17 with Rashi). This was a prophetic description of Joshua, a member of Ephraim, who conquered the Land of Canaan with great power similar to that of an ox. Menashe, the second ‘sub-tribe’ of Joseph, had a flag adorned with a reim. This animal, whose identity is uncertain, had beautiful horns. Moses compared Menashe to the reim because one of his descendants, the judge Gideon, would smite the enemy as a reim gores with its horns (Devarim 33:17). Binyamin’s flag featured a wolf, the animal that is active early in the morning and at twilight. King Saul, who descended from Binyamin, was active in the morning of Israel’s history, while Mordechai and Esther, also descendants of Binyamin, were active during the dark days of exile (see Bereishit 49:27 with Rashi).

The Camp of Israel was thus divided into these tribes, each with its own flag and symbol and each with its own location in the camp. One may ask why the ordering of the camp only took place in the second year following the exodus from Egypt. Why did God not instruct Moshe to arrange the camp in this formation when they originally left Egypt? Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky (Emet L’Yaacov) provides a beautiful explanation. The division of the camp into different tribes, each with their own flags and insignia, could have led to divisiveness. The fact that each tribe was represented by a different symbol indicated their unique nature and character.  Without something to bind all the camps into one, these differences could have led to the creation of 12 separate nations, each with its own laws and culture. Only after the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle, was complete, did God command the division of the tribes. The Mishkan which occupied the centre of the camp was the unifying force of all the tribes. Each tribe was acutely aware of the fact that God’s Presence was amongst it. The location of each tribe in the camp was defined in terms of its position around the Mishkan. As long as God’s temple was in their midst, they were bound together – 12 pieces (13, if one counts the tribe of Levi) making up a single unit. Rabbi Kamenetsky explains that this is not unlike the human body.  Even though each limb and organ has its unique function, they are bound together as one to create a single body around a central point – the heart.

When the Children of Israel eventually settled in the Land, there was to be a new central point, a new heart, which would unite the different provinces. This would be the city of Jerusalem and the Temple that stood at its highest point. The unifying nature of Jerusalem appears in many statements of our Sages. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 56:10) notes that Abraham called the future site of Jerusalem yireh (see Bereishit 22:14), whereas Malkizedek had called it shalem (Bereishit 14:18). Rather than cause a division between these two great men by choosing one name over the other, God fused both names into one – Yerushalayim. In Psalms (122:3), King David describes the capital thus: “The built up Jerusalem is like a city that is united together.”  Some commentaries (see Ibn Ezra and Radak) explain that he is referring to the pilgrimage festivals when all tribes would be united three times a year in Jerusalem. People from every province would flock to Jerusalem combining into a single nation with one purpose – to worship God. Furthermore, when King David purchased the Temple Mount from Arvana the Jebusite, he used funds that had been raised from every tribe to buy the land, so that each would have a share in the place (see Rashi to Devarim 12:14).

This week, we celebrated Yom Yerushalayim, the day on which the entire city of Jerusalem and the Western Wall were reunited with the State of Israel. Once again, the Jewish people had its heart, its central point to which all eyes and hearts are directed. We hope and pray that Jerusalem will remain a source of unity amongst our people and that it will flourish as the undisputed capital of the State of Israel.

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom!   Rabbi Liebenberg

I will be away from 31 May to 9 June to attend two simchas in Johannesburg. This Shabbat, Shimpa Moch will read the Torah and deliver the sermon before Mussaf and Rebbetzin Lee will give a shiur after the Kiddush Brocha. Come and support the home side!

Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for Shabbat:

Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for Shavuot:

*Yom HaMeyuchas. 

The second day of Sivan is referred to as Yom HaMeyuchas, the Day of Distinction. Whatever day of the week on which the 2nd of Sivan falls, will be the same day of the week that Yom Kippur will occur in the coming year. It was on this day that Moshe ascended Mt Sinai and was informed of God’s intention to give the Torah.

Sunday 9, Monday 10 & Tuesday 11 June / 3-5 Sivan – Shloshet Yemei Hagbalah

The 3rd, 4th and 5th days of Sivan are called the “three days of surrounding the mountain.” On these days, the Israelites prepared to receive the Torah on Shavuot. The laws of mourning that applied during the period of the Omer cease on the morning of the first day (Thursday).

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