May 20, 2015
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #974, BaMidbar, Parsha Thought


Every detail of the Jewish people’s sojourn in the desert was choreographed by G-d. The twelve tribes were divided into four formations, each consisting of three tribes. While each tribe had its own distinctively colored flag, there were an additional four flags, one for each of the tribal formations.

The Torah, in this week’s parsha, describes it thus:

The children of Israel should encamp, each man by his banner, according to the insignias of their father’s household, at a distance surround the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp.

The significance of flags was not lost on our Sages, as they state in the Midrash:

When G-d revealed Himself to the Jewish people at Sinai, 22,000 chariots of angels descended with Him… and they all came with flags. Upon witnessing that they came with their flags, the Jewish people began to desire flags. They said, “If only we could have flags like theirs… If only He would bestow upon us His love…” Said G-d to them: “What do you desire? To make flags? I swear that I will fulfill your wish,” as it is stated “G-d will fulfill all of your desires.” Immediately, G-d notified Moses of His love for Israel and said to him: “Go make them flags just as they desired.”

Why did the Jews become so enamored with flags after they saw the angels’ banners? Why did they accept the notion that simple flags could be construed as a demonstration of G-d’s love?

We can understand why each tribe would want to have its own flag. They had unique spiritual identities that were reflected in the colors and images emblazoned on each flag. But how should we understand the need for the four additional flags?

Why did G-d only bring a relatively “small” delegation of angels to Sinai, specifically 22,000? Of what significance is that number? The Tosafos commentary explains that the number of angels corresponded to the number of Levites at that time. However, this explanation itself requires a further explanation: Why didn’t G-d bring 600,000 angels, corresponding to the total number of all the classes of Jews who were counted and not just the number of Levites?


The following analysis is partially based on the Chassidic work, Arugas HaBosem, but first we need an introduction to the world of angels and their role in and relevance to our lives.

An angel, or Malach, which means messenger, is a spiritual creature G-d uses to carry out missions. Angels are not inanimate instruments like the forces of nature, which are also G-d’s instruments and in some instances are also referred to as angels. A Malach is a spiritual being whose entire existence is devoted to getting close to G-d. Since it has no evil inclination, it has nothing to distract it from that goal or even water down its passion. It is constantly surging forward, attempting to get closer. Angels are described in the Book of Yechezkel as having the constant movements of ratzo, advancing to get closer to G-d, and shov, retreating when they realize that He is beyond them.

When G-d gave us the Torah, He appeared with a “delegation” of his angels to demonstrate their passion to us. In doing so, G-d instilled within us our own passion for Him and for the Torah that He gave us. Indeed, the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, according to our Sages, was a dramatic expression of the mutual love between G-d and the Jewish people.

The Talmud relates that when G-d gave us the Torah He held the mountain above our heads and “coerced” us to accept it. Chassidic teaching explains that the mountain that hovered over our heads actually was an expression of His profound love, which “compelled” us to receive the Torah. How could we have refused the Torah when it was given with such love?

By coming with His angels, G-d reinforced our understanding of His love for us, which engendered a reciprocal love from the people to Him.


Moreover, angels are also called animals; they are the spiritual counterparts and sources of physical animals and of our own animal souls. By descending with His celestial animals G-d demonstrated His desire for our animal souls to share the love with our G-dly souls. When the animal soul is aware of how the angels, the celestial animals, are so passionate for G-d, it too acquires some of that ardor.

The tribe that was closest to experiencing this angelic passion for G-d was the tribe of Levi. The Levites were made responsible for, among other tasks, singing the holy melodies during the daily services in the Bais HaMikdash. The Levis’ service was charged with incredible spiritual emotion and generated the angelic ratzo, advance to get closer to and be absorbed in the G-dly light.

By bringing 22,000 angels, G-d instilled within the 22,000 Levites the special passion that was vouchsafed primarily for that particular tribe. While the other tribes had to focus more on the act of shov, retreating, and by so doing bring G-d’s unity into the parameters of our world, the tribe of Levi was commissioned to inspire and awaken the hidden love of the other tribes. Maimonides writes that every Jew can be a Levite in terms of their spiritual character. It is just that members of the tribe of Levi have it naturally, while everyone else has to work at it. The Levites specialized in that mode of service most of the time while the rest of the nation did it more sporadically. Hence the 22,000 Angel instilled their passion into every Jew vicariously, through the tribe of Levi.


Passion for G-d alone is inadequate; it must be coupled with action. The Torah requires us to express that passion for G-d in four areas of service: Torah study, prayer and the performance of Mitzvos. The fourth service dimension is to serve G-d in all of our ways by doing everything with a higher motive and purpose. Each dimension or area of service had a unique banner.

Each grouping of tribes focused its efforts on one of the four areas represented by these four banners. Adoption of the idea of the angels’ flags implied that these four dimensions of service to G-d empowered the Jewish people with the ability to study Torah, pray, do Mitzvos and serve G-d in all of our ways, instilled with a powerful sense of celestial angelic love for G-d, which should permeate even our animal souls.

This mutual love affair between G-d and Israel continued and was strong as long as the Bais HaMikdash stood and the Levites performed their unique musical service in the Temple. Their heavenly melodies ignited the heavenly sparks within the entire Jewish nation. Where can we find that same passion in our lives today?


To answer this challenge, we can get our inspiration from the angels, albeit in a different fashion.

The word in Hebrew for angel is malach. This is an acronym for four Hebrew words “Ki mechakim anachnu lach-For we are waiting for You,” which appear in the k’dusha prayer recited on Shabbos. These words describe our longing to be reunited with G-d in the future Bais HaMikdash, when His sovereignty will be revealed forever and our eyes will perceive His kingship.

When we examine the sentences of the k’dusha that precede this phrase, we see that they discuss the love and passion for G-d displayed by the angels. What is the reason for juxtaposing the love of the angels with our waiting for the coming of Moshiach and the rebuilding of the Bais HaMikdash?

We now understand that the role of the angels is to inspire us with their passion. By extension, we can understand that in the present day and age, when we no longer have the same powerful experience of the Divine as we had in the times of the Bais HaMikdash, we may rely on the inspiration of the angels to have the passion for G-d’s presence amongst us restored.

In other words, even when we don’t feel the thirst for G-dliness, we must, at least, harbor the sincere desire for restoration of that feeling of love. We must want to want to get closer to G-d.

We can now understand the desire of the Jewish people to have flags like the angels did. They realized that their feelings of closeness to G-d during the revelation at Mount Sinai would not endure. When one is exposed to an overwhelming Divine experience without an opportunity to internalize it, the experience and inspiration will dissipate. The Jewish people recognized that the angels’ flags would serve them in good stead. They would be a constant reminder of the passion for G-dliness they should generate even when they were no longer at Sinai or in the Bais HaMikdash. The people needed a tool that would help them preserve their inspiration toward G-dliness for posterity.

Thus, the Midrash states, they desired flags as a constant reminder of their love for G-d. The flags would help them maintain a desire for them to have that desire. G-d responded affirmatively and enthusiastically to their request.

The lesson for our times is clear. One vestige of our previous intensity of love for G-d, even in Galus, is when, at the very least, we express our heartfelt pleas for Redemption. Even if Galus conditions have desensitized our feelings for the four areas of service to G-d, we can salvage ourselves by raising the “flag,” the symbol of our desire for Moshiach, and exclaim to ourselves and those around us, “We want Moshiach Now!”

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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