Symbols can impart powerful meaning


The opening Parashah of the 4th book of the Torah of the same name, B’midbar, sets the scene for Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. The Children of Israel are counted (again) and each tribe is assigned its place in the camp. The kohanim and each of the three branches of the tribe of Levi form the inner ring around the Mishkan (the sacred center of worship); the other 12 tribes, divided into groups of three, form the outer ring. The Torah summarizes with this note: “And the children of Israel encamped, each one by his tribe and each one by his flag.” (1:52)

The great 11th century commentator, Rashi, summarizing a midrash from the fourth century, wrote that each tribe had its own flag, insignia, and colors. We may have imagined the Israelites in the wilderness as a colorless, rag-tag swarm of humanity. Here, the midrash invites us to see bright colors. Whether the midrash presented an historical fact or whether it is an imaginative interpretation is debatable. But the underlying message is clear: identity is forged by visible signs.


Our visually saturated generation is exposed to numerous symbols. Flags of 192 nations are represented at the UN and each of our 50 states has its own flag, as do military units. Schools, sports teams, and businesses have familiar and recognizable colors, banners, and insignias. But the quantity of symbols does not necessarily translate into a corresponding connection to them.

Imagine yourself in a remote wilderness. The attraction of being there is to experience something very different. But being in unfamiliar surroundings for an extended period triggers longings for the familiar, for home. Suddenly, in the distance you see a small building upon which a familiar flag is flying — the red, white and blue of the USA, or the blue Magen David of Israel — what a sight that would be! Our flags, colors, and symbols reinforce the bonds that bind us.

Our religious heritage is replete with powerful symbols. Our holy days are highlighted by matzah and the seder plate, the shofar, a sukkah, lulav and etrog, the chanukiyah and latkes, and graggers and hamentashen. We close each week with Shabbat candles, Kiddush wine, and challah. And in our homes and in our synagogues we connect with the sefer Torah and mezuzah, with our kippah, and with tallit and tefillin during prayer. Hebrew letters decorate our world. All these are among the flags of our history and heritage. These symbols of Jewish life have been enriched over the centuries and are still today given fresh vitality by the interpretations of students — Rabbis, and men, women, and children.

When these symbols are seen and, more importantly, when they are properly used in religious practice, not only do they enrich and strengthen our religious and national connections, but they inspire us emotionally and intellectually, especially when we find ourselves in remote places, distant from our religion, heritage, and people. This Shabbat, may the candles, the Kiddush wine, the challah, and the siddur and the sefer Torah bring us closer to God and to each other, a profound sign in the wilderness.

Rabbi Seth D Gordon, of Traditional Congregation, is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.