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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Bamidbar 5774 "At Full Mast"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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A man once found an eagle’s egg and put it in the nest -

of a barnyard hen. The eagle hatched and grew up with the rest
of a brood of chicks and though he didn’t look at all the same.
He scratched the earth for worms and bugs and played a chicken’s game.

The eagle clicked and cackled; he made a chicken’s sound.
He thrashed his wings, but only flew a few feet off the ground.
That’s high as chickens fly, the eagle had been told.
The years passed and one day when the eagle was quite old-

He saw something magnificent flying very high
Making great majestic circles up there in the sky
He’d never seen the likes of it; “What’s that?” he asked in awe

While he watched in wonder the grace & beauty that he saw.

“Why that’s an eagle,” someone said. He belongs up there; it’s clear

Just as we- since we are chickens- belong earthbound down here.”

The old eagle just accepted that- most everybody does.
And he lived and died a chicken, for that’s what he thought he was.

--Charles Osgood

“G-d spoke to Moshe and Aharon saying: The Children of Israel shall encamp, each man by his banner, according to the insignia of their fathers’ household, at a distance surrounding the Tent of the Meeting, shall they encamp.”[1]

Throughout their forty-year sojourn through the desert, Klal Yisroel maintained a specific marching formation, with specific tribes paired with others on their defined side of the Mishkan. Each tribe also possessed a unique flag that proudly symbolized and heralded the unique characteristics of that tribe.

The Medrash on this verse cites a conversation between the nations of the world and Klal Yisroel, based on verses in Shir HaShirim: “Holy and great were the Jews (when they marched) with their flags. All of the nations gazed upon them and wondered about them, “Who is this that gazes down from atop, (brightening like the dawn, beautiful as the moon, brilliant as the sun, awesome as the bannered Host of Kings)?”[2] The nations said to them (i.e. the Jewish nation), “Turn away; turn away, O who is perfect!” Cling to us and to come to us and we will transform you into rulers and dignitaries… “Turn away; turn away and we shall choose nobility from you!”…Yisroel however replies, “What can you bestow upon us, the complete ones”, what greatness can you give us, perhaps (you can grant us greatness that parallels our marching in the desert when we) “encircled the camps!”[3]

The nation felt great pride because of their unique formation of encampment in the desert and their flags. What was the greatness of the flags?

Ateres Mordechai, Rabbi Mordechai Rogov zt’l, explained that the key to the greatness of the flags is to be found in a meticulous reading of the verse’s terminology, “Each man by his banner.” Klal Yisroel was prideful of the fact that each tribe maintained its own banner, representing their efforts to fulfill their tribe’s individual goals and objectives. Each man, each tribe, accepted his banner's mandate with enthusiasm. They did not dissent their position or protest, nor did they attempt to exchange their responsibility for that of another. There was no jealousy or envy. Everyone performed what was expected of him and did not impinge on anyone else.

Rabbi Rogov continues by citing a poignant story that reinforces this idea: One Erev Yom Kippur after the Ma’ariv service, the Bais HaLevi[4] noticed one of the community's wealthiest members reciting Tehillim in the back of the synagogue. The Bais HaLevi approached the man and asked him what the punishment is for one who deserts the army? The surprised wealthy replied that a deserter is condemned to death. The Bais HaLevi then asked him what the punishment is for an infantryman who decides to desert his post and join the cavalry? The wealthy man again replied that he too is deemed a deserter and is condemned to death.

The Bais HaLevi then informed the wealthy man that he himself is culpable of the same crime. He explained that G-d has various divisions within His People. There are those who are foot soldiers. They are the impoverished who lack the ability to support others. Their task is to recite Tehillim and to serve G-d despite their poverty. Then there are wealthy folk who ride in elegant coaches pulled by mighty steeds. They are granted wealth by G-d so that they can engage in good deeds and selfless kindness. Their role is to support and sustain others.

The Rebbe explained: “Tonight, is the eve prior to the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. In our city of Brisk, there are countless people who are so destitute that they lack basic needs. Someone who possesses your financial capacity should be out on the streets, seeking out those in need and offering assistance. You should work so tirelessly helping others that you should be so emotionally and physically drained that you simply lack the strength to recite Tehillim.

“From the fact that I see you here reciting Tehillim, it is clear that you have not fulfilled your duty. Leave the Tehillim for somebody else; go out and perform your responsibility while you still can!"

The Mishna in Avos[5] states, "Who is a strong man? One who overcomes his evil inclination!" The Bais HaLevi noted that the vernacular of the Mishna was specifically that one must overcome his evil inclination, as opposed to the evil inclination of someone else. The rich man must overcome his inclination to withhold charity, while the poor man must defeat his evil inclination which restrains him from reciting extra Tehillim. Every individual has his own role and every individual is faced with his own unique challenges and hindrances.

The Gemara[6] expounds the verse[7], “Has He not created you and firmed you?” with two homiletical interpretations. The first explanation is, “G-d made bases (Kenim) in man. If those physical bases are reversed, man cannot live.” The second explanation was stated in the name of Rabbi Meir: G-d made Yisroel like a great city that has everything: Kohanim , prophets, ministers, and kings.

Rabbi Rogov explained that both explanations are connected. The reign of all kings, and the fulfillment of all various roles, can only be accomplished if every individual is performing his own task. When every man recognizes the “base” that G-d has given him and embraces his role, then kings will be kings, prophets will be prophets, and priests will be priests. However, when one individual tries to usurp the flag of his friend that is the beginning of the downfall of the entire nation.

Flags have been a symbol of human achievement since time immemorial. They have been used to lead armies to victory, to claim ownership of vast territories, and to crown mankind's greatest achievements. Flags stir up emotions within us that few other symbols can. A flag bearing the insignia or a representation of its people, blows in the wind representing that nation’s staunchness to stand up to the tempests of time and not to be daunted by the gales and vicissitudes inevitable to national growth. That piece of colored cloth bears powerful significance. That is why burning a flag is such a potent statement. To one who sees the flag as a symbol of something great, burning it is a vicious and heinous affront.

Every Jew has his own inherent flag. It is incumbent upon him to recognize the value of his flag and to hoist it proudly at full mast. The role of parents, teachers, and educators is to help each of their children realize the splendor and beauty of his/her unique flag. Every person must be proud of the individuality of his flag while realizing that his flag is a part of a much greater flag as well.

The verse in Tehillim[8] states, “He (G-d) is the Healer of the brokenhearted, the One who binds up all their sorrows. He counts the number of the stars, to each He assigns names.” What is the connection between the fact that G-d heals broken hearts and that He has a name for every star?

One of the greatest forces that debilitate and paralyze growth is despair and a sense of worthlessness. When a person does not recognize his own value he becomes skeptical of what he can contribute.

When one looks at the stars which are so vast and boundless he becomes completely overwhelmed by their seeming infiniteness. Yet, G-d has a name for each and every one. Every star was strategically placed, granted a certain magnitude of strength, and has its own mission. To us the sky may seem like a conglomerate of small lights, but to G-d each of those sparkling lights is a star with a special name and mission. The stars symbolize that we too possess our own uniqueness. On the one hand we are part of a greater whole, but on the other hand, each part of that whole maintains its own greatness.

There is no greater way to heal a broken heart than to help that heart realize that its beating has immeasurable value. The significance of our individual lives is of utmost importance. Without any one of us the Kingship of G-d would be incomplete; the flag of Klal Yisroel would only fly at half-mast.

“Each man by his banner”

“He counts the number of the stars, to each He assigns names”

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[1] Bamidbar 2:1-2

[2] Shir HaShirim 5:10

[3] Shir HaShirim 7:1

[4] Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt’l (1820-1892)

[5] 4:1

[6] Chullin 56b

[7] Devorim 32:6

[8] 147:4

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