Watching Machaneh Yisrael travel through the desert must have been quite a sight; over 600,000 grown men, plus scores of women and children, all travelled at the same time. Thinking about all these people, it becomes clear that this was a scene that under normal circumstances would have certainly dissolved into utter chaos. Yet, it does not seem that this occurred. How did Hashem ensure that the joint travel of millions of people did not regress into utter pandemonium?
On a simple level, the division of the Jewish camp into Degalim, flags, was one of the methods used to address this concern. Each Sheivet had a different flag, and while camping and traveling, each member of the Jewish people would take care to stay in formation with all those with whom he shared a flag — “Ish Al Diglo BeOtot LeVeit Avotam,” “Each man [camped] by the flag and standard that corresponded to his ancestral house” (BeMidbar 2:2).
But these flags did more than just divide and organize. They also sent powerful messages about the unique qualities and missions of each of the tribes. Rashi writes that each tribe’s flag was a unique color, matching the color of that tribe’s stone on the Choshen (ibid. s.v. BeOtot). Rabbeinu Bachyei (BeMidbar 2:2) elaborates and explains that each of these colors reflected a unique strength, quality, or mission of each particular Sheivet. For example, Yissachar’s flag was blue, reminiscent of the sky, as they were a tribe known for their prowess in astrology. Zevulun’s flag was silver, symbolic of their economic strength. Asher’s flag was bright yellow, symbolizing the rich olive oil they would produce in the future. The flags of the rest of the tribes had similarly symbolic colors. Beyond the colors, each flag also contained an emblem relevant to its Sheivet. Yehudah’s flag, for example, depicted a lion, the animal Ya’akov Avinu compared to Yehudah (BeReishit 49:9). Naftali’s emblem was a deer and Binyamin’s was a wolf for the same reason (49:21, 49:27), and so too for all the tribes. Each tribe’s symbol reflected something about that tribe, be it a special strength, dedication, mission, or quality.
What is the purpose of a flag? A flag can serve as a powerful reminder of loyalty, a mission, or a personal strength. When the members of each Sheivet of the Jewish people looked at their flag as they camped and traveled, they were reminded of what made them unique, the unique role that they played in the greater Klal Yisrael.
But, in light of a number of other fascinating Midrashim, it seems that the flags carried a shared message as well. A number of Midrashim write that the letters of the names of the Avot, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov, were also written on the flags of the four leading camps, Yehudah, Dan, Re’uvein, and Efrayim. One letter from each of the Avot’s names was written on Yehudah’s flag, another on Dan’s, a third on Re’uvein’s, and a fourth on Efrayim’s. The one remaining letter — the letter Hei from Avraham — was missing from these flags, and was instead written on the Aron HaKodesh. Additionally, Rabbeinu Bachyei (BeMidbar 2:2) writes that the emblems of the four leading flags were a lion (Yehudah), a person (Re’uvein), a vulture (Dan), and an ox (Efrayim), which together comprised the four faces of the Keruvim that hold up the Kisei HaKavod in Yechezkel’s vision (Yechezkel 1:10).
In this sense, the flags of Machaneh Yisrael were different from flags typically seen today. They not only carried a stand-alone message, but also a message that could only be properly understood when all the flags were viewed together. The letters on each flag would look like a random jumbled assortment when seen one flag at a time, but they came together to form the names of the Avot when seen collectively. The figures that adorned each of the leading flags had meaning in and of themselves for their corresponding Shevatim when standing alone, but represented something so much greater — the Kisei HaKavod, G-d’s holy throne of glory — when viewed together with those of the other Shevatim.
The flags of Machanei Yisrael can serve as a powerful reminder of our unique individual strengths and missions as individuals, as families, and as communities. But they also remind us just how much powerful we can be when we combine and come together with other individuals, families, and communities as part of a greater Klal Yisrael.