Bamidbar: Following a standard

This is a rare week.  The weekly Torah portion lined up exactly with the portion we were studying in my wondrous,  weekly Torah class, “Kaftor v’ferach.”  (We named ourselves, of course!)  We started Bamidbar actually a couple of weeks ago, but there’s a lot in there, and we tend to take our time.

And this is the week we all gather (again) at Sinai, to remember and relive the moment we got our “marching orders”, our “Consititution”, our “community blueprint”, our “marriage contract with God”, our “pathway” of life….the Torah.  It is Shavuot and Memorial Day, too…both moments of the power of memory.

This was a rare week for Chicago, too, because as the whole world knows, NATO met recently.  The preparation (at least the ones we mere citizens witnessed) started a couple of weeks ago too ,what with the road closings, changes in train schedules and the drum beat of media coverage, the signs and banners, marchers and influx of people who had things to say.

Which brings me back to these first few chapters of the book of Bamidbar, which is often translated as “Numbers” (because of the census taken right away), but what really means “wilderness.”

If you look at some of the photos from this last weekend,  there are lots of people carrying signs.  Regardless of whether or not you agree with them, people spent the better part of several days coming to a place, organizing themselves, identifying themselves with signs and banners, and marching behind them to make themselves heard.

And now to Bamidbar, and the work of Kaftor v’ferach, my class.  In the first chapters of the book, we read in great detail of the way the Israelite camp is set up.  Remember, there were twelve sub-groups of the Israelites, largely based on the sons of Joseph.  They are all assigned specific places in the camp.  The encampment forms a protective barrier around the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.  The Mishkan itself is surrounded by those on the “inner circle”, literally:  the priests and the Levites, whose job it is to take care of the Mishkan, and they are the only ones who can get close to it without getting in trouble (like, dying.)    The rest of the tribes were assigned places on the north, south, east and west ends of the camp.  The encampment is more than a tent layout.  When they marched, they moved as a community, leaving behind the Mt. Sinai experience, and heading out into the vast, unknown wilderness.  The group moved this way as a fighting force, protecting the most precious item in the middle (the Tabernacle).  And they all had banners and flags.  “Ish al diglo” “Every man had his standard” – his flag, banner, like a tribal logo. (Num: 2:2)

As you can imagine, many commentators have explored the camp layout to find explanations, metaphors, insight, etc.  Rashi (11th c France) says, “These signs were indeed ensigns. Each standard had a colored flag hanging from it, and the colors were all different….this way, everyone could recognize his own standard.”  Other commentators used the layout as metaphor for forces of nature, the body (with the Mishkan, the heart, in the middle), or Kabbalistic emanations of God, a military formation, and more.

The flags were something the people could get behind…literally.  They were community-builders, because people identified with what was on the flag.  So, too, did the marchers and protesters in Chicago last week.

They put their thoughts on a piece of posterboard and marched out to show the world what they believed in.  And it wasn’t just the protesters.  The police marched out with badges and insignias, too.  So did the NAtO guests.  “Ish al diglo”  – everyone had their standard.  They believed in what they were doing, what they were following, what was guiding them, just as the flag of the Israelite tribes guided the people in the wilderness.

What would be on a flag that you would follow? What standard identifies your community?   What image guides you through the wilderness, ready to fight to protect what is at the core of your community?

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