Parshas Bamidbar:

Let Your Flag Fly

by Miri Korbman

This week, I officially celebrated my graduation from my doctoral program. Given the current circumstances and social distancing requirements due to COVID-19, the graduation took place virtually. That did not stop me, or my fellow cohort members, from parading around in full graduate regalia (masked and distanced from other humans, of course), soaking in the glory and celebratory excitement of the day.


As I sat in Central Park enjoying the sun and Zoom celebrations, many passersby wished me congratulations, noting my graduation attire. Some friendly folks even recognized the three suede black stripes on the sleeves of my gown as denoting the specific prestige of the doctorate. While the best comment by far came from one well-meaning woman who, mistaking me for a teenager, smiled beneath her mask and called out, “Congratulations! What grade?!”, the majority of those strangers who passed by paused at the sight of my graduation cap, gown, and hood, because they knew that they signified that I had received a doctoral degree.


In reflecting on this experience and on the meaning of my degree and its accompanying mission and professional identity, I thought as well about the significance of the four letters that will now follow my name (Psy.D.). These demarcations, while exciting, privileged, and humbling, call to mind the enormity of my responsibilities as a Jewish psychologist, and give me pause to consider the identities I hold and the visible and overt banners I carry - the causes, values, ideologies, characteristics, and life missions I embody and represent.


In Parshas Bamidbar, we read about the manner in which the Jewish people camped in the desert. The pesukim describe how the Jews camped concentrically surrounding the Mishkan, with Shevet Levi closest to it, and all the other tribes fanned out around them. Each tribe carried a flag, and these flags marked their territory each time they camped. The Pasuk (Bamidbar 2:2) says, “each man shall camp according to his flag, under the banner of his family’s house [tribe]; so shall [Bnei Yisrael] camp around the Ohel Moed.” Rashi explains that each tribe had its own flag, a piece of colored cloth the color of the stone on the Choshen corresponding to that Shevet. The purpose of the Degalim was not only to delineate the precise parameters of the camp of Israel but also to signify the special characteristics of each Shevet, which has its own unique mission in the service of Hashem. The Degalim were set up immediately following the national census, during which each family in each tribe was counted, because each family also had its own representative and unique qualities.


I heard a beautiful idea this week from Rabbi Chaim Marcus, who cited an idea brought down by the Slonimer Rebbe. The Midrash relates that the Malachim were jealous of the Degalim, and wanted them for themselves, because the Degalim endowed each tribe and family and member of Klal Yisrael with a special and unique purpose. Each Degel was symbolic of that Shevet’s strengths and contribution to the Klal, a mission statement unique to the tribe. Similarly, each family had – and has – unique traits, traditions, private jokes, values, and strengths that set them apart from other families and gave the family members a deeper sense of meaning and purpose. This is also why the census at the beginning of the Parsha was done “bimispar shmos bnei yisrael,” according to the names of Yisrael, for each family’s name, the most classic and clear indicator of one’s identity, was evident in the counting in order to emphasize the important role of each family and each individual.


For centuries, countries, states, cities, armies, schools, institutions, and groups have used banners and flags, specific colors and symbols, to unite members to their cause. The letters or titles we attach to our names, the uniforms or accessories we don in solidarity to a specific group, all foster a deep sense of connection, and enhance our feeling of meaning and purpose in connecting to those values and ideals. Rabbi Marcus noted so poignantly that psychologically, human beings have an innate need to belong and an equally strong need for purpose. The groups we join, the identities we create, and the flags we wave provide us with that sense of meaning and belonging.


R’ Nachman of Breslov said in his Torahs on Cheit Adam HaRishon that a Jew must discover, “Heichan Ani B’Olam,” where am I in the world? We want to feel grounded and sure of our place in the world, we yearn to discover our unique role, the way we can contribute. This was the beauty of the Degalim, which enabled each tribe and each member of Klal Yisrael to feel sure of their place and their purpose within the larger whole.


The Nesivos Shalom (Moadim II) notes that this is why Klal Yisrael was able to say Naaseh V’Nishma and rise to the level of angels by committing to acting before being able to analyze or question. In being offered the Torah from God directly, in bearing witness to His existence through Yetzias Mitzrayim and at Har Sinai, the Jewish people realized that their purpose was to do Hashem’s will and spread His name and His truth in the world. Armed with this clarity of purpose and attached to this mission statement and identity as God’s people, the choice to accept the Torah, all 613 laws, in all their excruciating detail, was obvious. Once we buy in to an identity, once we subscribe to a set of values and commit ourselves to the flags we fly, all the details, the hard work, the questions, and the frustrations become far easier to digest - if they don’t disappear entirely.

There is almost nothing more debilitating than to feel that one has no purpose, or to feel bereft of a place or role in the world. Just this week, a patient expressed this exact idea so profoundly, noting that all of her life she’s been chasing specific material successes to which others have ascribed meaning in the hopes that she might feel fulfilled, but has been unable to afford most if not all of them, which has left her feeling empty and hopeless. In reflecting on this with greater psychological insight and wisdom, however, she is now able to recognize that what she has been chasing and craving is meaning, and that can only come from living in accordance with her values, in a way that is specific and unique to her and what she can contribute to the world.


Each day at the end of our Shemoneh Esrai, we implore Hashem, “V’sein chelkeinu b’sorasecha,” give us a portion in Your Torah! This is strange: don’t we all have a portion in the Torah? After all, Chazal explain that each letter in the Torah corresponds to an individual Jew! What are we really asking for here?


We are asking Hashem to help us discover that individual and unique chelek, the portion that is truly ours, the mission and role that He has set aside for us.


As we approach Shavuos, let us pause to consider: what flags do I wave in my life? What am I known for and for what do I wish to be known? What do I stand for, and for what do I wish to stand? Each of us has unique traits, qualities, talents, values, passions, and histories that shape us and enable us to engage in unique missions. Quite literally, we have different stripes, different titles, different paths; and we are all full of potential. As we prepare to receive the Torah together this Shavuos, may Hashem help all of us discover our true Degalim, and may we all be Zocheh to experience true meaning and fulfillment in contributing our share as part of our glorious, incredible nation.