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Gemstones, Banners and Insignias

Updated: Jun 8

Comments on Torah Portion Ba-Midbar 2024 (adapted from prior versions)

©Rabbi Mordecai Finley, 2024 (edited)

 

WARNING: There will be a homework assignment at the end of this teaching.

 

This Torah portion, Ba-Midbar (In the Desert) begins “The Book of Numbers.” This Torah portion has many lists. The Torah portion comprises, for example, lists of tribes and the number of males twenty years old and up in each tribe. These men over 20 are termed “kol yotzei tzava” “all who go out in the Legions” – the organized militia in case of war. It is a boring list until we get invaded.

 

We have descriptions of where all the tribes/militias stationed themselves around the Mishkan – the Dwelling Place of God. Twelve tribes around the compass, four stations NSEW, three tribes each.

 

The lists go on.

 

If you avoid reading the lists, you’ll miss a verse. In Numbers 1:2, we are told “the Israelites shall encamp around the Tent of Meeting, each man by his banner and the insignia of their clans (ish al diglo b’otot l’beit avotam).” As far as I know, the “banners and insignias” are not expanded upon in the Bible.

 

In Rabbinic Literature, especially Ba-Midbar Rabbah 2:6-7, the imagination of the Rabbis fills in what the Bible leaves out. According to the Midrash, each of the 12 Tribes had a uniquely colored banner. The colors of the banners were determined by the colors of the gems associated with each tribe on the Breastplate of the High Priest (see Exodus 28:17-20).

 

In addition to a banner, each tribe had an insignia on its flag. The insignia was an animal or other image symbolic of the unique characteristic of each tribe.

 

For example, the stone on the Breastplate for the tribe of Dan was a jacinth. Therefore, the color of the tribal flag was “like sapphire.” According to the Midrash, embroidered on the flag was a snake, the tribe’s insignia, based on Genesis 49:16-17:


Dan shall govern his people,

As one of the tribes of Israel.


Dan shall be a snake by the road,

A viper by the path,

That bites the horse’s heels

So that his rider is thrown backward.

 

This verse is a subtle one. The “horse and rider” seems to refer to the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds, where the cavalry was thrown off its horses by the raging waters of God. Dan represents a just government, stopping any new trampling horses, and throwing any new oppressors to the ground.

 

The three tribes together, each with its banner and insignia, on each point of the compass, formed a regiment, and each regiment had a tricolor – the three colors of each of that regiment’s three tribes.

 

In this short section of the Midrash, we have a symphony of colors and insignias, standing for the  12 battalions and four regiments of the ready reserves.

 

The Midrash asks: Why did God assign to each tribe a banner, according to the colors of gemstones on the Breastplate of the High Priest, and insignias representing an array of allusions? The Midrash refers us to Deuteronomy 32:10. In that verse, the desert, the midbar, is described as a “tohu, y’lel v’shimon,” “a wasteland – howling and desolate.” Rashi adds a comment to that verse, where he alarms us by saying that the desert was home to “the howls of crocodiles (taninim) and birds of prey.”

 

The Midrash and the verse in Deuteronomy, as many of you can see immediately, is resonating with the unformed void before creation (tohu) and the ancient mythological sea monsters of Babylonian mythology (the taninim). We add to that chaos vultures, feeding on death. We can smell the rot of chaos. It would be hard to find a better image describing the crisis of chaos, a chaos against which creation constantly struggles.

 

A howling, desolate wasteland, where birds of prey and sea monsters screech and roam about. The Wasteland – a world evacuated of meaning, the stench of death and decay, a shattered world that invites nihilism and despair.

 

In my mind, the Midrash speaking on the “banners, insignias and gemstones,” using the distressing imagery of Deuteronomy 32:10, is teaching us how to navigate the Wasteland.

 

We have to form communities in the Wasteland, communities of meaning aligned to struggle against forces that teach destruction.

 

To create communities of meaning, we must find gemstones hidden in the terrain of desolation. Even in this howling Wasteland, there are precious stones to be found, sparkling with beauty. representing our mostly deeply held values. As we give those gems names, we find that the colors of the soul are being brought to the surface.

 

Laws and norms are established. Don’t eat birds that feed on corpses – don’t be nourished by cults that teach death.

 

Straighten up. Find your tribe (you won’t be doing this alone). Fall into formations arrayed around the presence of God. You are a spiritual warrior and are hereby enlisted in the ready reserves.  

 

Chase off the vultures and crocodiles that infest our land (and our college campuses), with light and order. Create symbols that remind you of your search for meaning and purpose.

 

We find our place among other gemologists and banner makers, embroiderers of symbols, organized around light and law, shapers of meaning in the Wasteland.

 

Your homework: Find gems, give them names. Each day find the gem that today is speaking to you, in “light and wholeness.” Bring the colors of the soul to the surface. Create banners that guide your way. Fill your life with insignias and symbols. Find your tribe. Face front to the Dwelling Place of God. Stand at attention.

 

Metaphorically - why is this book of the Bible called “In the Desert” (the howling, desolate wasteland)? To remind us of where we are, what we must do, and what is at stake.

 

It’s not all homework. You can take one day off a week, to refresh your soul. But please, stay vigilant. The vultures and crocodiles never rest.

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