Netvort Bamidbar 5772: Flag Day

By Rabbi Joshua (interactively known as the Hoffer) Hoffman


Parshas Bamidbar begins with the census of the Jewish people. The Torah tells us that they were counted, ‘bemispar sheimos,’ with a number of names.  Rabbi Yissochor Frand, in a talk on the parsha, pointed out that this term is self-contradictory, an oxymoron. The word ‘mispar’ means a number, which implies that the people included are being viewed as being of little consequence, as mere numbers, while the word ‘sheimos,’ or names, points to each person’s individual identity. How, then, would the people being viewed – as mere numbers, or as unique individuals?


Rabbi Frand answers that both ideas are true. On the one hand, the Jewish people were being counted as a collective, as part of an entity, in which individuals are engulfed into whole. On the other hand, they were also being counted as individuals, each with his own unique role that only he can carry out within the nation.


Based on this notion of the duality of count, Rabbi Frand explains why parshas Bamidbar is always read before Shavuos, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah at the Mount Sinai. In order to receive the Torah, the nation had to be unified. This necessity is highlighted in parshas Yisro when the Torah says that “Yisroel encamped opposite the mountain” (Shemos 19:2). The verb for ‘encamped’ is written in the singular, even though the previous three verbs in the verse are written in the plural.  Rashi explains that when they encamped opposite Mount Sinai they were united, as “one man with one heart,” even though, until that point, they were quarrelling and complaining. The reason they were united, says Rabbi Frand, is that, as the midrash tells us, they were all given flags, or ‘degalim,’ similar to the flags they saw being carried by each of the ministering angels. These flags, are, in fact, mentioned in parshas Bamidbar, when we are told that “each man encamped at his flag” (Bamidbar 2:2), symbolizing the unique role that each tribe was charged to carry out.  As the Slonimer Rebbe points out, in his Nesivos Sholom, each individual within his respective tribe also had his own unique role to play, as reflected in the midrash concerning the flags of the ministering angels. When everyone in the nation realizes that he has his own unique place within the collective, there is no reason for jealousy, because each one understands that the role he has to play is not the role that anyone else has to play.  In this way, the Jewish people were able to achieve unity at Mount Sinai.  Since this is reflected in the dual nature of the count in Parshas Bamidbar, that Parsha is read before Shavuos as a preparation for the holiday.


I would like to suggest a different explanation of the dual nature of the count in Bamidbar, and its connection to the giving of the Torah on Shavuos, based on a concept I heard from my teacher, Rav Aharon Soloveichik, zt”l. The Ramban, in parshas Emor, in explaining the lineage of the ‘mekalel,’ the man who cursed G-d, mentions, and takes issue with, the opinion if the sages of France. They said that before the Torah was given, Jewish identity was determined by patrilineal descent. This opinion is, in fact, supported by the Talmud in Kerisos 9, which derives the laws of conversion from the process that was undergone at Mount Sinai. The Ramban disagrees with French sages, and says that from the time that Avraham enters the covenant through his circumcision, he was called Yisroel. This is reflected, says the Ramban, in the Talmud tractate Kedushin (18a), which says that Eisav was an apostate of Yisroel. Therefore, concludes the Ramban, the law of matrilineal descent began with the circumcision of Avraham.


Rav Aharon, zt”l, said that, given that there are good sources supporting both opinions we can actually accept both of them. This is because there are two dimensions of ‘kedushas Yisroel,’ or Jewish sanctity, that of the individual and that of the collective. Individual ‘kedushas Yisroel’ began with the circumcision of Avraham, while collective ‘kedushas Yisroel’ began with the conversion of the Jewish people at Mount Sinai.  Both the Ramban and the French sages can agree to this distinction, and the only dispute between them is whether the law of matrilineal descent depends on individual ‘kedushas Yisroel’ or a collective ‘kedushas Yisroel.’


I would like to add to this distinction drawn by Rav Aharon, zt”l, an idea that can be derived from the Rambam in his Mishnah commentary to Hullin (7:6, in perek gid hanashe).  He writes there that we keep mitzvos because we received their command through Moshe at Mount Sinai. This applies even to those mitzvos, such as Bris Milah, that are mentioned in the Torah before G-d’s revelation there. Thus, says the Rambam, we observe Bris Milah, not because Avraham did so, but because Moshe, at Mount Sinai, told us to perform circumcision just as Avraham did. This formulation of the Rambam seems to imply that some element of Avraham’s circumcision remains even after the command at Mount Sinai, and this, indeed is reflected in the blessing said at the Bris Milah, “to bring him into the covenant of Avraham, our father.” I believe that the idea here is that one must view his individual ‘kedushas Yisroel,’ which is initiated through Bris Milah, within the context of the collective ‘kedushas Yisroel,’ which goes back to Mount Sinai. This, in fact, is what occurred at Mount Sinai, when G-d, on the one hand, spoke to the collective, while at the same time, as the midrash says, addressed himself to each individual according to his capacity, as reflected in the formulation of the beginning of the Decalogue, “I am the Lord your G-d.” At Mount Sinai, each individual Jew was led to view his personal relationship with G-d, his individual ‘kedushas Yisroel,’ within the context of the collective. This is also reflected in the count in Bamidbar which was done ‘bemispar sheimos,’ with a number of names. Perhaps, then, this is why Bamidbar is read before Shavuos, as a means of reawakening ourselves to the need for an attachment to the collective entity of the Jewish people, by viewing our individual relationship with G-d within the context of the nation’s collective sanctity.

The entire staff here at Netvort wishes a good Shabbos and a joyous Shavuos to the individuals and the collective of the Netvort land!