We read in this week's parsha about the architecture of the tribes' encampments in the desert. The text makes a point of mentioning that each individual is to pitch by their flag, “eish al diglo”. (Numbers 2:2) Midrash Rabba elaborates on this image beautifully, telling us that Revelation at Sinai was attended by twenty-two thousand chariots of angels, each one decked out with flags. The Israelites saw the angels' flags and greatly desired to have flags of their own, to which God readily agreed.
What was so desirable to the people about these angelic banners?
The Netivot Shalom suggests that the reason each angel bears a flag is that each has its own unique mission. After all, the Hebrew word for angel, malach, literally means 'messenger'. An angel is a divinely encoded message, capable of performing one mission and one mission alone.
Human beings, on the other hand, are eclectic and multifaceted. We are awash with multiple messages and meanings. In this sense, it would be anathema to suggest that the complexity of our lives could be encompassed by a single strip of fabric. And yet, that is the beauty of a flag. It is a concise, if over-simplified, symbol or sign of something much vaster. It makes sense that the word following flag in the text is “b'otot – as a sign”. Flags are essentially signs, signifiers of something else.
Just look at our most commonly used flags - words. The word 'love' is a single syllable that represents an inexhaustible array of meanings, feelings, actions. A hundred million poems worth of meaning are encoded in that single banner of a word. This consolidation of multiple meanings into a single sign of utterance is the basis of human expression. All language is, in fact, sign language.
As we see in the Midrash, the people of Israel admired the angelic single-mindedness of this type of flagging and desired it for themselves. They yearned, as we all do, to consolidate and express their own singular message and calling in the world. For sometimes we can get lost in the myriad missions we are moved to enact. Something wonderful happens when we are able to focus, to take the rich ineffable girth of our lives and concentrate it into a singular encompassing expression.
And yet our flags are essentially different from those of the angels. We return to the phrase, “eish al diglo”. While this often gets translated as “every man under his flag”, the word “al” does not mean “under” at all. On the contrary, it means “above”. What could this subtle and surprising detail connote?
I would augur that while it might be that angels stand under the flag of their singular mission, we humans are granted the gift of having flags, yet standing above them. We have the ability to be at once focused, as well as limitless. We are complex and multifarious, and that itself is an essential part of our calling and mission in the world.
Our goal is to stand above our flags, to use them but not to be used or limited by them. To claim our calling in the world and enact it with grace and commitment, but also to embrace the widest possible vision of ourselves. And in this we are more transcendent than even angels. In this we are replicas of the limitless Divine.
Integration exercise: Of all the talents and passions that God has gifted to you, attempt to focus in on one symbol that somehow encompasses or signifies it all. What is a single simplified symbol of the mission which is yours and yours alone to enact in life? Chose a word, a phrase, a picture, an emblem. Make your flag and fly it. Know that this is a symbol that signifies your essence. Also know that you stand above that flag and are so much more than can be placed on a rectangular form.
A coat capacious
to capture the wind
A consolidation of self
into a spot to sing from
A sign you are going
a sign you have come
A sign you have made it
a sign you’ll make more
A whisper, unmediated
what standing stands for
A chorus of symbol
a cipher of self
With this four-cornered fabric
your essence is spelt
And yet beyond spelling
beyond signals and signs
your highest expression
out of the lines.