May 25, 2006
A Banner Day
Parshat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)
At the beginning of the month, I joined the hundreds of thousands of people who marched from MacArthur Park to the
La Brea Tar Pits in support of basic rights for immigrants, the strangers among us. I was worried about my family becoming separated in the throng of marchers, so I brought a bicycle flag, a little neon triangle on a tall lightweight rod, upon which I'd written in sharpie: "Klein Family."
We were surrounded by banners, some hand-painted, some mass produced, words passionately imploring in Spanish and English, flags of different countries rippling toward helicopters as we marched ever so slowly.
At one point my husband and daughter became separated from my son and me. My son held up the little orange flag to reunite us. It was just an orange fleck in a sea of waving banners, with no message, no political statement. It said simply: "Here we are. Find us, join us. Don't let us be lost. We love you."
Perhaps that was the essence of every banner that was flown that day.
This week's Torah portion creates a picture of the 12 tribes of Israel marching over the wilderness terrain in well-organized troops, the divisions of Judah to the east of the tabernacle, Ephraim on the west, and the other tribes assigned to positions in between. An army of men, women and children who once marched hunched over from intolerable service to Pharaoh were now marching upright, in formation, in service of God, with banners streaming above them, as it is written: "The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house" (Numbers 2:2).
Some imagine the 12 banners were designed each according to the character of the sons of Jacob, much like the signs of the 12 months of the year in the zodiac. Others say that the color of the banners matched the colors of the 12 gemstones imbedded in the High priest's breastplate, ruby red, golden topaz, glittering sapphire.
According to the Midrash, the Israelites witnessed the angels at Mount Sinai, each with their flowing banner, singling them out as precious to God. The Israelites also wanted to be unique, to be counted. Bamidbar is primarily focused on counting and arranging the Israelites, who stands where in relation to the Tent of Meeting.
The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:3) explains: "When the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself upon Mount Sinai, 22,000 angels descended with Him, as it is said, 'The chariots of God are two myriads, two thousands; The Lord is among them at Sinai in holiness'" (Psalms 68:18), and they were all arrayed under separate banners, as it is said, "Marked out by banners from among myriads" (Song of Songs 5:10). "When Israel saw them arrayed under separate banners, they began to long for banners, and said, 'O that we also could be ranged under banners like them!'.... They said, 'O that He would show great love for me': and this is also expressed in the text, We will shout for joy in Your salvation, and in the name of our God we will set up our banners.' Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to them, 'How eager you are to be arranged under banners; as you live, I shall fulfill your desire!'"
As a child, my family would often spend the summer on Fire Island, off of Long Island. I remember walking all the way to the tip of the island, where there stood an old weathered lighthouse that had become a museum.
Inside, there were old pictures of the original family who operated it, parents with two children. The docent explained that the father would make his children wear bright red hats while they played on the reed-swept dunes. That way, when he was high in his tower, he could look down and know exactly where they were.
We run through the reeds, explore the dunes, and our Father, the light-keeper, keeps His eye on us. Not one of us should be lost. At the end of the day, not one of us should be left out. Not one of us should be unembraced by the banner of love, when evening falls, like a blue-and-silver-threaded tallit over creation and everything in it.
Zoe Klein is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah.