Bamidbar - weekly Torah portion

One hundred and fifteen years ago, in 1902, Noah Rosenblum wrote his poem “Carry to Zion a Flag and a Standard” (my free translation, also of a part of the poem itself as follows). With the enthusiasm of pre-world war I and II he calls:

Carry to Zion a Flag and a Standard

The Flag of the camp of Judah

By vehicle or by foot Let us become a union.

To the land of our Fathers

To our beloved land

The cradle of our youth.

Return, return from afar,

To the Land, land of Fathers!

Flee, flee from troubles

With the help of God.

We shall go together, please return

We shall then be a People as we were,

Putting a stake in the ground.

Our mouth will then fill only with laughter

And our tongue with gladness!

These words of “the flag of the camp of Judah” are taken directly from the portion of the Torah we read this week, BaMidbar”. Just like those of the large camp of Israelites leaving Egypt, most of those who are addressed by Rosenblum have never set foot on the Land of Israel. However, at least their spiritual bond between them and the Holy Land has never been severed. It is not simply the land of our ancestors but also the place of birth of each and every Jew. It is the place where we became a People. And there is a wish that we become a People again, like in the past, a free People that controls its own destiny.

Still it is interesting to note the difference between what we read in this portion of the Torah and what transpires from this poem. Rosenblum talks about a single flag, the flag of the camp of Judah while, as the journey of the Israelites through the desert, which is complex and dangerous, and early in the life of a Nation, still demands that “they camped by their standards, and so they set out, everyone by his family according to his father’s household.” This may of course also contradict the poet’s aspiration to be like we were in the past – he wants us to be a free People, but strives towards a united nation under a single flag, a union. He wants to begin the journey as one, to return to the Land as one. He likely prefers that words of the prophet Hosea from which we read the Haftarah, “And the sons of Judah and the sons of Israel will be gathered together, And they will appoint for themselves one leader, And they will go up from the land”. Rosenblum clearly urges not to split again into many tribes or factions and rather have a union.

Last Wednesday Israel celebrated the Jerusalem Day – at the age of 11 I, like many of those at the time, remember the announcements of the freeing of the Old City, which until then was something out of reach. At one instance the walls that have separated us from our past have crumbled and there was free passage to those holly places. But this free passages remained for only a short period of time with barrier quickly erected to prevent us from entering united into these holly places. Again we were driven to split into tribes, genders, religions, and again free passage is not again possible. It is not possible any more to speak about a united Jerusalem in the simple and basic way which we dreamt about and believed in at that very first day. Extremists have ceased control and as villains often say, ‘anything that’s mine is mine, and anything that is yours is also mine’ and are unwilling to accept the right of other to be equal partners.

When Rosenblum articulates his wish of being a People as we once were he certainly did not wish to be the People described by the prophet, “I will also put an end to all her gaiety, Her feasts, her new moons, her Sabbaths And all her festal assemblies. I will destroy her vines and fig trees, Of which she said, ‘These are my wages Which my lovers have given me.’ And I will make them a forest, And the beasts of the field will devour them. “ The poet probably hoped that walking in the desert from the Diaspora to the Promised Land will be more like what Hosea described later in the Haftarah, “I will allure her, Bring her into the wilderness And speak kindly to her. Then I will give her her vineyards from there, And the valley of Achor as a door of hope. And she will sing there as in the days of her youth, As in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt… I will also have compassion on her who had not obtained compassion, And I will say to those who were not My people, ‘You are My people!’ And they will say, ‘You are my God!’”

Hence one side we have the desert a place without law and order, a place with no compassion. It is the desert from which we have to get out in order for us to arrive at a better place. To do so some discipline and order is required. In order to improve things here in Israel we must look at the desert and construct the roads that will lead us to planting vineyards, creating the right social order, one that protects us as well as embraces other peoples of the land. A Jerusalem Day that declares ‘it is all mine’ is not a day of unity for the city and is sad. A truly joyful Jerusalem Day will be one where each flag and each standard will be genuinely welcome, from all streams, all religions, from every human being.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov.

Reuven Marko, 2 Sivan 5777, 26 May 2017

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