The Parsha starts with Hashem instructing Moshe to take a census of Bnei Yisrael. So on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, Moshe and the Nesi’im of each Shevet counted every male over the age of 20 according to their shevet. After the census was taken, Hashem further instructed Moshe regarding the formation of the encampment of the Jews around the Ohel Moed. The twelve Shevatim were divided into groups of three on each side of the Ohel Moed. Each Shevet encamped by their respective flag. Aside from the unique flag of each Shevet, each trio had a flag with the colors of its three Shevatim on it.
Let us explore the relationship between the tribal flags and the census.
When the Torah is talking about counting Klal Yisrael the term used is
. שְׂאוּ אֶת רֹאשׁ כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת כָּל זָכָר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם
The common translation of this is “Take a census of the Jewish People”. However, a close inspection of the word שאו seems to imply that this was much more than a simple census. שאו comes from the word הנשאות, to raise up. This means to say that the concept of counting was such that Klal Yisrael as a whole was lifted in greatness over all the other nations. In addition, each individual person, as he was counted, was raised and considered.
We see in Hoshea 2:1 the Navi says וְהָיָה מִסְפַּר בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כְּחוֹל הַיָּם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִמַּד וְלֹא יִסָּפֵר – The number of the Jews will be like the sand of the sea, which can neither be measured nor counted. The Gemara in Yoma 22b points out a seemingly contradiction: the Navi first says how many Jews there will be and then immediately afterwards says that the Jewish people cannot be counted. How can we explain that?
The Seforim explain that Klal Yisrael cannot be counted as a whole entity. However the counting that the pasuk is referring to is a counting of individuals within Klal Yisrael. We are higher than just being counted as a whole. We get individual attention. This is clear in Tehillim 87. The Pasuk states וּלֲצִיּוֹן יֵאָמַר אִישׁ וְאִישׁ יֻלַּד בָּהּ וְהוּא יְכוֹנְנֶהָ עֶלְיוֹן. יְהוָה יִסְפֹּר בִּכְתוֹב עַמִּים , which is loosely translated as “Hashem will count when he records nations. However, regarding the Jews, it can be said Man after Man.” Meaning that Hashem counts the nations as a whole and he counts Yidden as individuals.
Perhaps we can take this census a step further and say that it was not only a dual concept, rather it was a triple concept. The greatness of the nation, the greatness of the individual and the greatness of Hashem.
We see that every single individual is necessary, because Hashem’s greatness exudes from Klal Yisrael. Therefore, if there is even one less person, the greatness of Hashem is thus diminished. This is similar to a puzzle that has thousands of pieces; if just one piece is missing, the puzzle is incomplete.
Now we can understand the word שאו, which means when you are counted, you are raised up and thereby adding greatness to HaKadosh Baruch Hu. As you, as an individual is counted, Hashem considers you great as well. Perhaps this explains the lengthy parsha of the flags, which symbolize each Shevet, representing a different Midda and raising it up as if to say this is how we make Hashem great in this world.
It is important that each of us recognize that it is inherent in each one of us to contribute to the greatness of Hashem. May we merit to always raise up the flag of Hashem and in return Hashem will bless us with greatness.