Making sense of the sedra: Bemidbar

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Making sense of the sedra: Bemidbar

Unity is better than Uniformity

In just over six weeks we will commemorate the 55th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and ‘Buzz’ Aldrin placing the United States flag on the moon. In this week’s parsha, Bemidbar, we read about flags: “The Israelites shall camp, each person with their division and each under their flag”’ (1:52).

Rabbinic teaching in the Midrash (Bemidbar Rabba 2:3) explains that when God revealed Himself on Mount Sinai, many angels descended bearing flags: “…when Israel saw the angels had flags, the people expressed a strong desire for flags.”

Rabbi Shalom Berezovsky (1911-2000) in his Netivot Shalom explains that the reason the Israelites wanted flags was because they wanted to be like the angels. Bearing a flag indicated that every angel had been assigned a unique purpose and had a clearly defined role. After the Torah was given, the Israelites had a joint mission and purpose, working towards the common goal of setting up the Tabernacle. When the individual tribes were allocated their precise position within the camp and assigned flags, they understood their specific purpose and function. Recognising that everyone has a unique purpose and contribution to make to the world is a prerequisite to receiving the Torah.

The Talmud (Berachot 58a) teaches that God created human beings “…with different minds and different faces…..…therefore each person is obligated to say: ‘The world was created for me.’”

People have different preferences, opinions, ideas, skills and talents. We should acknowledge and appreciate one another for our differences as much as for what we have in common. Rabbi Lord Sacks, in the Dignity of Difference, writes: “The very fact that we are different means that what I lack, someone else has, and what someone else lacks, I have.” The ideal scenario for the Jewish people is to be unified not uniform; we should combine our unique thoughts, expertise and abilities to create one whole nation.

When Jack Swigert, on a very different mission, famously said: “Okay, Houston… we’ve had a problem here” each professional at Apollo 13 Mission Control understood their exact responsibility, and each individual made their own unique contribution which facilitated the survival of all three astronauts.

Tim Marshall, in Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags, explains that flags encapsulate the idea of unifying people: “Behind a homogeneous set of ideals, aims, history and beliefs – an almost impossible task. But when passions are aroused, when the banner of an enemy is flying high, that’s when people flock to their own symbol.”

Over 3,000 years ago, we stood united at the foot of Mount Sinai.  The great medieval commentator Rashi (Shemot 19:2) explains that we were “as one man with one heart”.  Since October 7, the Jewish people have displayed an incredible sense of unity – setting aside political and religious divisions, coming together, donating time and money for soldiers and displaced families; praying for and fighting for our sons and daughters held hostage.

Let us hope that this year on Shavuot the Jewish nation can once again be worthy of receiving the Torah, uniting under one flag and unified through respect and love for each other, rather than by a common enemy.

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