Parashat Bamidbar: The One Thing People are Willing to Die for
Read the teaching below, or watch a video of the teaching by Yehuda Bachana.
This Shabbat we read Parashat Bamidbar. The name of the weekly Torah portion is determined by the first word that appears in it, so too is the name of the five books of the Torah. The name is determined merely by the first word appearing in it, and not necessarily according to the content.
The Hebrew name, Bamidbar, means “in the desert”:
“The Lord spoke to Moses in the tent of meeting in the Desert of Sinai…” – Numbers 1:1 [NIV]
The English name for it is Numbers; mostly because this book is not so surprisingly full of numbers.
The Call to Bring Order Where There is No Order
This week’s parasha begins with a commandment given to Moses:
“You and Aaron are to count according to their divisions all the men in Israel who are twenty years old or more and able to serve in the army.” – Numbers 1:3 [NIV]
There is a stark contrast between being in the desert and conducting a census. There are no rules in the desert and no laws, it is absolutely limitless.
The desert dwellers did not have much property. There were storms in the desert – it is where we broke the Tablets of the Covenant. The desert is full of anarchy – a situation without order.
A census is the opposite, its purpose is to bring order, a framework, and government.
When we read the weekly Torah portion, we feel as though we are reading the report of the Statistical Bureau of the Sinai Desert, that somehow it accidentally entered the Bible.
Moreover, the order is exemplary. Each person is recorded according to their ancestral home and tribe, where they camped, and under what banner they traveled.
God’s Order Works
In another month and a half we will read Parashat Balak. It appears that the order is working, that the Israelites are organized, and it is difficult for Balaam to find a breach in the people. He cannot find a place from where to curse the people of Israel, and he must move to and fro in order to find the right spot.
From the highest of vantage points he sees order, the people of Israel dwelling in tribes, each in their own camp under their flag. What was Balaam looking for? Balaam sought a place or a way to break the unity of the people and allow for discord and division.
Finally, Balaam blessed the people of Israel with the famous blessing:
“How beautiful are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel!” – Numbers 24:5 [NIV]
We Cannot Live on Our Own in the Desert
It’s a wonder in itself, the amount of arguments was probably few. The people must have been united in one way or another.
Some say that it was the desert that helped unite and strengthen the people.
In the desert, there are no street lights. Day is day and night is night. There is no air conditioning. There is nothing to distract us, no advertising.
Suddenly, we find that we cannot exist alone, we need each other in order to survive. We have to lend a hand to help those in need. From here grows loyalty and mutual responsibility, an ideal. It goes to show that even from the desert, a nation can grow.
Everyone is uniform, according to the commandment, either stopping to camp or rising to continue on the journey, “each of them under their standard,” (Numbers 2:2) according to the banner of the tribe.
Why is a Flag so Important?
What is a banner, and why is it so important? Each country has their own rules on how to treat a flag.
The importance of the flag as a symbol is expressed in Theodor Herzl’s words in a letter to Baron Hirsch:
“What is a flag? A pole and a piece of cloth? No, Sir! A flag is greater than this. With a flag people are led to wherever you want, even to the chosen land. For a flag, people live and die. It is the one thing people are willing to die for.”
In this context, we reach the words of David Wolfson regarding the Israeli flag:
“At the order of our leader Herzl, I came to Basel to make all the preparations for the first congress. Among the many questions that occupied me then was one… With what flag will we decorate the congress hall? What are its colors? We do not have a flag. This idea was very painful for me. We must create the flag. But what colors should we choose? And then an idea became clear in my mind: Indeed we have a flag. White and blue. The prayer shawl in which we wrap ourselves in our prayers – this prayer shawl is our symbol. We will remove the tallit from its case and unfurl it before the eyes of Israel and the eyes of all the nations. I then ordered a blue and white flag with a Star of David drawn on it. And so our national flag came into being.”
The Flag We Serve Under in the Congregation
A flag symbolizes a vision and our belonging, as human beings, to a common idea. Therefore, every nation has a flag, every company has a logo.
As believers, our vision is to be a lighthouse. To shine Yeshua’s light, the light of Torah, and to draws others closer to faith. According to Yeshua’s words in Matthew 5:
“You are the light of the world… In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 5:14a,16 [NIV]
The vision of the local congregation is to build a supportive and constructive community that will enable believers to grow and strengthen together.
The call to serve the flag, the vision, is a call to join and do something for the members of the local community, to build the social and volunteering aspects of the congregation.
In Hebrew we have a phrase, “to be called to the flag.” This means to be called to contribute, to give from yourself at your own expense, for the vision, for the community, or for the country.
Even to fight for the ideal of the nation with the same flag.
The Call to War in Israel
In the IDF, when there is a call to the flag, what we call “Order 8,” the response rate is about 110%-115%. How exactly is this possible?
For regular military reserve duty, training or standard operations, there is about a 75%-80% response rate. Reserve military units make their plans according to an 80% response rate. This is the case, because people are under pressure at work, there’s a new baby, people are out of the country, and many other reasons and excuses.
However, in the case of war, like with Lebanon in 2006 or the large-scale operations like those in Gaza in 2008 and 2014, there is a higher response rate. Even when it’s dangerous, when there is a tangible risk of loss of life.
This is because we are being called upon to protect our homes and our families. These wars are not a privilege, they’re a duty. In other words, our homes are under attack, and we must protect them.
The above 100% response rate is due to people who are out of the system, older people, or people otherwise removed from the system, hear about their friends getting called up, or read it about it in the news, and they simply show up at military bases, ready to serve.
The Call to be a Flag
We too are called to the flag, we are called upon to stand behind the vision and serve it. However, we are also called to be a flag, to be a symbol of faith, a sign of what is good, right, and true.
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 5:16 [NIV]
Yeshua’s commandment is very clear. That people may see us, our faith, our joy, and our deeds, and through these they will come to know God.
We are required to be kind and patient. To show love, joy, peace, and serenity. Indeed, if we do not have joy and true love in our hearts, what then do we have to offer the world?
Not everyone finds the joy and glory found in nature. There are days when it seems like the whole world around us is in a state of deep depression, stuck in a terrible evil. We have to change this perception; that is actually our mission of life.
We have a duty to project happiness, to radiate love and peace with the world and with ourselves.
The world should see that we have something to offer, that we have an undying source of joy.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” – Philippians 4:4,5 [NIV]
This video features music by Keith Green. It’s is one of the best, you can’t listen to it without being filled with joy:
As believers, we must strive to lead lives that are full of light, light that will attract others. People ought to see us and get inspired to improve their lives, their families, and to draw near to the Creator of the world.
May we have the power to grow strong together as a family and a community, and to strengthen others, in the name of Yeshua the Messiah.