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by Efraim Levine

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Each man at his own flag with the insignia of their father’s houses shall the children of Yisroel encamp, at a distance around the tent of meeting they shall encamp. (Bamidbar 2:2)

In this week’s parsha we are introduced to the mitzvah of the flags. According to the Midrash every tribe was given a flag with a specific color and symbol. When the Jewish people traveled in the desert from one location to another they traveled alongside their flags. Each individual knew his place with respect to the location on the flag of his tribe. It is noteworthy that a flag serves no purpose other then a symbolic identity.

The Yerushalmi (Eruvin 4:1) presents a dispute as to exactly what configuration the Jewish people traveled in the desert. According to one opinion the Jewish people were in the configuration of a box. Just as a box is square, likewise the Jewish people traveled in the formation of a square. The commentators explain that all the tribes surrounded the tribe of Levi who carried the aron and other appurtenances of the mishkan. When they rested they also camped in this formation. The other opinion posits that the Jewish people traveled in the configuration of a beam. Just as a beam points in one direction likewise, the Jewish people traveled in groups of tribes, with one tribe following the other.

In the sefer Simchas HaTorah, Rav Simcha Shettner questions as to why the first opinion did not simply say that the Jewish people traveled in the formation of a square instead of a box. Perhaps, we may answer that the comparison to a three-dimensional box represents containment. As the Jewish people traveled through the dessert they took with them the gift of the Torah that Hashem gave them. Unlike other nations that lose their heritage and traditions when they are dislocation, the Jewish people remained loyal to the torah throughout their wanderings. This was indicated by the formation they assumed in their travels in the wilderness. Their traveling was like a box. Just as a box is used to contain and preserve, likewise the Jewish people preserved the Torah. The other opinion suggests that they traveled in the formation of a beam. In addition to the simple meaning that they traveled in order, it also alluded to focus and strength, which is symbolic of a beam. Many nations have become disoriented and weak when relocating to a different environment. This was not true for the Jewish people who traveled through the desert with focus and spiritual strength.

Chazal teach us that the journey of the Jewish people in the desert for forty years foreshadowed the journey of the Jewish people throughout galus. Throughout the years in galus we must incorporate both opinions of the Yerushalmi and preserve the Torah and maintain our focus and spiritual strength.

For at least the last few hundred years of our journey through galus, perhaps the only thing that we have that is similar to the flags of the desert is the symbol of the Magen Dovid. It is this symbol that has identified one as a Jew. The commentators struggle to explain the symbolic definition of this symbol. Perhaps we may suggest that the Magen Dovid symbolically represents the combination of both opinions in the Yerushalmi as to how the Jewish people traveled in the desert.

As Rav Simcha Shettner explains a box by definition is three-dimensional. Anything three-dimensional has six sides. However, a box does not focus to any one direction. On the other hand a beam does points to a specific direction, however it lacks the quality of containment. The Mogen Dovid, as six pointed figure represents the combination of a three-dimensional object with focus. It combines the box with the beam. The six sides which represent the three dimensional box of containment are not dull and flat but point with focus, precision and strength as do a beam. When we view the Magen Dovid we identify with our ancestors of the desert who traveled through the desert with focus, strength and most importantly with the Torah.


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Efraim Levine 5761/2001