Our portion deals with the degalim (flags) which the tribes traveled and encamped by, as it says, “Each man by his flag according to the signs (flags) of their fathers’ households will the Children of Israel encamp, at a distance surrounding the Tent of Meeting will they encamp” (Parshas Bamidbar, 2:2).
Although each and every tribe had their own distinct flag, with its own unique color and emblem (Bamidbar Rabba, Parshas Bamidbar, 2:7), in this article we are only going to focus on the four primary flags of the four leading tribes which were positioned around the four sides of the Mishkan (Sanctuary).
The first flag belonged to the tribe of Yehudah which was situated on the eastern side. Yehuda was flanked by the tribes of Yissachar and Zevulun (Parshas Bamidbar, 2: 3-5-7).
The second flag belonged to the tribe of Reuven which was positioned on the southern side. Reuven was flanked by the tribes of Shimon and Gad (Parshas Bamidbar, 2:10-12-14).
The third flag belonged to the tribe of Ephraim which was located on the western side. Ephraim was flanked by the tribes of Menashe and Binyamin (Parshas Bamidbar, 2:18-20-22).
The fourth flag belonged to the tribe of Dan which was placed on the northern side. Dan was flanked by the tribes of Asher and Naftali (Parshas Bamidbar, 2:25-27-29).
Rashi (Parshas Bamidbar, 2:2) cites the Medrash Tanchuma (#12) who says that the tribes were positioned around the Mishkan in the same formation as the sons of Ya’akov when they carried Ya’akov’s coffin to be buried in Canaan. Ya’akov instructed his sons how to carry his coffin. Ya’akov delegated each son to a different position around his coffin. Ya’akov promised them that if they would carry his coffin in the precise way that he told them, they would deserve to be positioned around the Mishkan with their perspective flags in the same formation. The sons of Ya’akov obeyed his instructions (Parshas Vayechi, 50:12-13), and the tribes in the midbar were given flags.
This begs us to ask what the connection is between the way Ya’akov’s sons carried his coffin to the way the flags in the midbar were situated?
Another Midrash in Bamidbar Rabba (Parshas Bamidbar, 2:3) tells us that when the Jews at Mount Sinai saw how the angels surrounded the Shechina (Divine Presence) in formation according to their flags, the Jews desired flags for themselves as well.
Moreover, in Bamidbar Rabba (Parshas Bamidbar, 2:10) it says that there are four groups of angels which surround the Shechina on the Kisei Hakavod (Throne of Glory). Each angelic group is led by a different angel. The four leading angels are:
1) Michael, who stands on the southern side, to God’s right side (so to speak), corresponds to the tribe of Reuven who is also on the southern side.
2) Oriel, who stands on the northern side, to God’s left (as it were), corresponds to Dan who was also on the northern side.
3) Gavriel, who stands in front on the eastern side, corresponds to Yehuda who was also on the eastern side.
4) Rephael, who stands in back on the western side, corresponds to Ephraim who was also on the western side.
By the way, our sages instituted that we recite the paragraph “b’Sheim Hashem Elokei Yisrael” during Keriyas Shema Al Hamita (the bedtime Shema) because in this paragraph it says, “To my right is Michael, and to my left is Gavriel, in front of me is Oriel, and behind me is Rephael, and above my head is the Shechina of the Almighty God.”
In this way, we tap into the spiritual energy of the degalim, the Shvatim (tribes), and the Malachim (angels).
The Shela Hakadosh (Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz, 1555 Prague-1630 Tzfas; Meseches Shavuos, Perek Torah Ohr, 103) adds that eventually, the angels were impressed with our degalim. This is hinted to in the verse which the angels say, “Hashem our Master, Mah Adir (how mighty) is Your Name throughout the Earth” (Tehillim, 8:2). The word “Adir” is spelled with four Hebrew letters which are: aleph, dalet, yud, and reish. These four letters serve as the acronym for, “Ephraim (the leading tribe who was on the western side), Dan (the leading tribe who was on the northern side), Yehuda (the leading tribe on the eastern side), and Reuven (the leading tribe on the southern side). This demonstrates just how impressed the angels were with our flags below.
All of this brings us to ask a few more questions. Why did Ya’akov request of his sons to carry his coffin specifically according to the arrangement of the degalim? Why did Ya’akov guarantee his sons that in the merit of carrying his coffin in this way, they would merit to receive the degalim? What is the connection between the four major flags below and the four major groups of angels above who surround the Throne of Glory?
We will start to address these questions by sharing a teaching from the Alshich Hakadosh (Rabbi Moshe Alshich, 1508 Turkey-1593 Tzfas, Toras Moshe, Parshas Vayechi, 47:29) who points to an apparent contradiction between verses. In Parshas Vayechi (47:29) it says, “And the time approached for Yisrael to die.” Another verse in Parshas Vayechi (48:21) says, “And Yisrael said to Yoseph, ‘Behold, I am about to die.’” These verses indicate that Ya’akov Avinu actually died.
However, another verse in Parshas Vayechi (49:33) says, “And when Ya’akov finished instructing his sons, he drew his feet onto the bed, and he expired, and he was gathered to his people.” Rashi (ibid) points out that this verse does not mention that Ya’akov died. Rashi explains this omission by quoting a Gemara in Meseches Ta’anis (chap. 1, “M’eimasai”, pg. 5b, Rebbi Yochanan) which extrapolates from this omission that Ya’akov Avinu did not die.
So, what really happened? Did this man die or not? The Alshich answers this apparent contradiction by defining death. The definition of death is when the soul leaves the body. However, Ya’akov Avinu possessed two souls. The first soul that he possessed was born together with him at the time of his birth. That soul was called “Ya’akov” (Parshas Toldos, 25:26, Rashi ibid, citing Tanchuma Parshas Shemos #2).
However, Ya’akov came to possess a second soul after his wrestling match against Eisav’s guardian angel. That angel told him that he would be called Yisrael (Parshas Vayishlach, 32:29), indicating a new soul that would be imbued into him at that time. That new soul’s name was “Yisrael.”
The second soul, Yisrael, was on a higher spiritual level than the first soul, Ya’akov. It was the second soul called Yisrael which eventually left his body and ascended to heaven. However, his first soul called Ya’akov remained within his body even after burial. Ya’akov was not dead, rather, it was like he had fainted, because the strength of Ya’akov remained inside of him.
Based on this teaching, the Alshich says that the Gemara in Ta’anis was extremely meduyak (meticulous) in its wording. The Gemara said that “Ya’akov did not die,” meaning, the first soul called Ya’akov did not leave his body. The verse was also meduyak because it said, “When Ya’akov finished instructing his sons, he expired and was gathered to his people.” However, the word “misa” (death) was intentionally left out of this verse because the soul called Ya’akov did not leave his body, therefore, the soul called Ya’akov did not die.
However, when the verses refer to the second soul called Yisrael, they use the term of death. For example, it says, “And the time approached for Yisrael to die.” And it also says, “And Yisrael said to Yoseph, ‘Behold, I am about to die.’” This teaches us that only the soul called Yisrael experienced death because that second soul left his body.
In fact, the rule of thumb is, whenever the expression of death is used regarding the third Patriarch, only the name Yisrael is used. Never is the name Ya’akov used.
When I saw this Alshich, it occurred to me that maybe this would explain the following Gemara in a slightly different way.
The Gemara in Meseches Sota (chap. 1, “Hamakneh”, pg. 13a) tells us that when the Shvatim were on the way to bury Ya’akov, Eisav stopped them and asked, “What are you doing?” They answered that they were going to bury their father Ya’akov. Eisav asked them, “Where are you going to bury him?” They responded, “In the Machpeila Cave.” Eisav said that there was only one plot left in that cave, and it is being reserved for him (Eisav). The Shvatim said that Ya’akov had already purchased that burial plot. Eisav asked to see proof of purchase. Since they left those documents behind in Mitzrayim, they sent Naftali to fetch them because he was swift footed.
In the meantime, Chushim, the son of Dan, who was deaf, did not understand why the funeral procession was being delayed. Using sign language, they explained to him what was going on. Chushim was shocked at the lack of respect that Eisav displayed for Ya’akov. Chushim grabbed a club and wacked Eisav on his head decapitating him. Eisav’s eyes popped out of their sockets and landed on Ya’akov’s coffin.
At that moment, Ya’akov opened his eyes and smiled because of the verse that says, “The righteous one will rejoice when he sees vengeance, he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked” (Tehillim, 58:11).
I used to think that for Ya’akov to open his eyes and smile, he must have been temporarily resurrected. However, according to this teaching of the Alshich, we do not have to say that Ya’akov was resurrected. Rather, we could suggest that since Ya’akov never died, the soul called Ya’akov was still beating inside of him. It was just that Ya’akov was kind of taking a nap. But when the time called for it, Ya’akov opened his eyes and Ya’akov smiled.
At this point, let us share a reason as to why the neshama (soul) of Yisrael left his body and ascended, whereas the neshama of Ya’akov remained in his body.
The Ba’al Hatanya (Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745 Belarus-1812 Russian Empire; Sha’ar Hayichud v”Emuna, chap. 7) says that the purpose of creation was to reveal God’s sovereignty over the world. But God can only be recognized as a King if there are people serving Him. As the saying goes, “Ein Melech Bilo Am” (There can be no king without a people).
The Shvilei Pinchas adds that it was Ya’akov Avinu who brought a nation into the world who serves Him, thereby making God into a King. That nation is Israel. This explains why Ya’akov instructed his family to recite the Shema (Bereishis Rabba, Parshas, Vayechi, 98:3, based on Parshas Vayechi 49:1). It is because through the recitation of the Shema, we proclaim that there is only One God and that He is the only King. By doing this, we fulfil the purpose of creation.
This nation of Israel went on to accept the Torah and perform its mitzvos, which further demonstrates that we are His subjects which makes God into a King. This sovereignty of God is manifest in the world above and in the world below, as we will now see from the next few Midrashim.
The Tanchuma in Parshas Naso (#16) says that at the time that God created the world, He desired a dwelling place below just as He already had a dwelling place above. This will of God was fulfilled when the Mishkan was erected and Hashem rested His Divine Presence on it (Parshas Teruma, 25:8).
The Tanchuma in Parshas Vayakheil (#7) says that the Aron Hakodesh (Holy Ark) below corresponded to the Kisei Hakavod above.
The Tanchuma in Parshas Naso (#11) says that Hashem vacated the Kisei Hakavod above in order to dwell on the Aron Hakodesh below.
Based on all of this, the Shvilei Pinchas says that we can now explain why the neshama called Yisrael left his body and ascended heavenward. It is because the soul of Yisrael is etched onto the Kisei Hakavod above (Bereishis Rabba, Parshas Vayeitzei, 68:12). The reason why the neshama Yisrael is engraved on the Throne of Glory is to show that it was in the merit of Yisrael Avinu that made Hashem into a King. This is because it was Yisrael Avinu who brought a nation into this world who obey Hashem’s decrees. This is what makes Hashem into a King. Once God is King, it makes sense that He has a Throne of Sovereignty. This is the connection between the neshama of Yisrael and the Kisei Hakavod.
Similarly, the neshama of Ya’akov did not depart from his body. The reason why the neshama of Ya’akov remained below on Earth was because it was meant to show that the Shechina rested upon the Kisei Hakavod on Earth [which was the Aron Hakodesh] in the merit of Ya’akov who brought a people into the world who obey Hashem’s decrees, thus making Him into a King.
Perhaps we could add that the Aron (coffin) of Ya’akov Avinu represented the Aron Hakodesh because both were about Torah. The Aron Hakodesh housed Moshe Rabbenu’s Sefer Torah and the Luchos (Tablets), and Aron of Ya’akov Avinu housed Ya’akov Avinu who was the quintessential Ben Torah.
Therefore, if Ya’akov’s soul remained in his Aron (coffin) below, it shows that the Shechina rests on the Aron Hakodesh below in the merit of Ya’akov who brought a nation into the world who serve Hashem, thereby making Him into a King. Once Hashem is King, it is fitting for Him to have a Kisei Hakavod below which is the Aron Hakodesh.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that this also explains the connection between the four primary flags below and the four groups of angels above. Once the Shechina rested on the Aron Hakodesh below [which is connected to the Kisei Hakavod above], it is worthy for the Aron Hakodesh below to be surrounded by four degalim of the shvatim just as the Kisei Hakavod above is surrounded by four groups of angels with their flags.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that this also explains why Ya’akov instructed his sons to carry his coffin in the same formation as the degalim of the shvatim in the midbar. It is because Ya’akov wanted to tell his sons that just as there will be degalim below for the shvatim, so are there degalim above for the malachim.
Ya’akov also wanted to inform his sons that just as the Shechina rests upon the degalim above, so will Hashem rest His Shechina upon the degalim below. Ya’akov also wanted to inform his sons that just as the Shechina rests on a Kisei Hakavod above like a King because there is a nation who serves Hashem making Him King, so would the Shechina rest upon the Aron Hakodesh below (which is God’s Throne on Earth) because of the fact that there is a nation who obeys God making Him into a King.
Ya’akov also wanted to inform his sons that all of this sovereignty which is revealed in the world is because Ya’akov left behind children who serve Hashem, making Him King. Therefore, Ya’akov informed his sons about the formation of the degalim, below and above, specifically when they were about to carry his coffin because Ya’akov wanted them to know that the neshama of Ya’akov would remain below, and the neshama of Yisrael would ascend on high to demonstrate that it is because of Ya’akov and Yisrael that the Shechina has a place of sovereignty above and below.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that this explains the connection between how they carried Ya’akov’s coffin to the degalim in the midbar. It teaches us that in the zechus (merit) of Ya’akov’s neshama which was left down here on Earth, we merited that the Shechina would reside with us down here on Earth, because Ya’akov created a people who would serve Hashem, thus making Him into a King which gives meaning to God’s sovereignty which would lead to the Shechina resting on the Kisei Hakavod below which was the Aron Hakodesh. Therefore, just as the Shechina is surrounded by four groups of flagged angels above, so would the Shechina be surrounded by the four camps of flagged shvatim below.
The Shvilei Pinchas continues to say that this explains why Ya’akov requested that they carry his coffin specifically in the same arrangement and formation as the degalim. Once again, it was to show that in the zechus of the neshama of Ya’akov which remained below and who created a people who serve Hashem making God into the true definition of a King, God would rest His Shechina on the Mishkan and on the Aron Hakodesh, God’s Throne below. Therefore, just as the Shechina above is surrounded by four degalim of angels, so would the Shechina below be surrounded with four degalim of shvatim.
Even today we can merit to be surrounded by the four camps of angels, because the Gemara in Meseches Berachos (chap. 1, “M’eimasai”, pg. 8a) quotes Rebbi Chiya bar Ami in the name of Ulah who said that since the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash (Temple), Hashem can only be found within the four cubits of halacha (learning Jewish law).
In his Sefer Iggeres Tiyul, Reb Chaim (1524 Poland-1588 Germany), who was the brother-in-law of the Maharal; Cheilek Haremez, #3) adds that these halachos, which the previous Talmudic Passage mentioned, stem from the Gemara, and the word “Gemara” is spelled with four Hebrew letters which are: gimmel, mem, reish, and aleph. These four letters serve as the acronym for: Gavriel, Michael, Rephael, and Oriel. This teaches us that anyone who studies Gemara is surrounded by these four angels and by the myriads of angels who serve under them.
These angels protect the person from all evil. So, it turns out that by learning Gemara down to halacha (its practical application), the person will also merit to have the Shechina rest upon him with the four angelic camps surrounding him. Such a person benefits from the kedusha (holiness) of the degalim, he benefits from the kedusha of the malachim, and he benefits from the kedusha of the Shechina Itself.
This is why the Gemara emphasized that God can only be found within the four cubits of halacha. The “Four cubits” hint at the “Four camps” of malachim which surround him protecting him from all harm.
One practical take-away message of this teaching could be to make it a habit to recite the bedtime Shema, including the paragraph “b’Sheim Hashem Elokei Yisrael” which talks about us being surrounded with the four angels Michael, Gavriel, Oriel, and Rephael.
Let us be reminded that we can be surrounded with these four camps of protective angels if we learn Torah. Let this serve as a springboard to encourage us to think in words of Torah as we fall asleep. May this recitation also serve as a reminder to inspire us to set aside time to learn Torah each and every day.
So, may we - Tribes of Ya’akov and Yisrael – all be blessed with the willingness and strength to engage in Torah study which will surround us with ministering angels who will protect us and which will bring the Shechina down to dwell upon us in this world, and in that zechus, we will all return to Eretz Yisrael where each and every Sheivet will encamp in his portion of land with his own flag waving proudly.