Parshat BamidbarWhen one looks at synagogue décor, one often notices odes to the 12 tribes. The specific images on the stained glass window or other artwork is inspired by something in the Torah, but they differ from shul to shul. This causes us to wonder, perhaps, if we are missing something, if artists know more than us, less than us, or if people are just looking at different sources to arrive at the image that best depicts the tribe in question.
There is no question that some look to the blessings Yaakov gave his sons in Parshat Vayechi for inspiration. Many of his children are compared to different animals in Bereishit 49, which are always nice ideas for artistic imagery.
But the Midrash Aggadah on our parsha speaks of the flags each tribe carried — each one bearing a symbol that represented the family patriarch whose tribe bears his name.
- Reuven’s symbol is the “duda’im” flower (often translated as mandrake), because of the role he played in bringing them to his mother. According to the Torah, that episode directly brought about the births of Yissachar, Zevulun and Yosef.
- Shimon’s is represented by the image of the destroyed city of Shchem, based on the role he played in destroying the city (along with his brother Levi).
- Yehuda’s image is a lion and Yissachar’s is a donkey — as per Yaakov’s blessing.
- Zevulun’s sign is "a home" based on the word Leah used when naming him, which is translated (by the midrash) to mean “a dwelling place.”
- Ephraim, one son of Yosef, has an ox (shor), as his symbol.
- Menashe, Yosef’s other son, has a “re’em” as his symbol. The identification of the re’em is unclear. In “Mysterious Creatures,” Rabbi Natan Slifkin concludes that it is either the oryx (a kind of gazelle) or an aurochs (a type of huge wild cattle - original version is extinct, though a "new aurochs" has been genetically created), while Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan includes other animals as possibilities, including a unicorn or rhinoceros, the white antelope, the wild ox, or bison (for many reasons, Rabbi Slifkin assumes the unicorn as we imagine it never existed)
- Binyamin is a wolf;
- Dan is a serpent;
- Naftali is an “ayalah” — which Rabbi Kaplan translates to be a hind or gazelle (though this is usually a “zvi”), and interestingly records the possibility of it referring to a tree or plain;
- Gad had images of armed soldiers on their way to battle.
- Asher is represented by an olive, or olive tree, because Devarim 33:24 describes Asher as dipping its feet in oil.
In addition to each tribe’s sign, the forefathers were also invoked on the chief flag of each three-tribe group. On Yehuda’s flag were the letters Alef, Yud and Yud איי, the first letters of the forefathers’ names. On Reuven’s flag were the second letters of their names, spelling the word “Betza" - בצע. Ephraim had the third letter of their names, “Rachok” - רחק. Dan had the word “Mekev” - מקב - in his case, the fourth letter of Avraham’s name was skipped (the “heh” which was added by G-d).
Each of these three-letter words has a lesson embedded in it. The term on Yehuda’s flag means “About me” — which is a reminder to comprehend G-d as best as possible.
Reuven’s hidden message is Betza, which means to gain profit — often in an unkosher way (see Bereishit 37:26) — which is a reminder not to profit from thievery.
Ephraim’s message is to “distance oneself from idolatry,” which is related to the message on Dan’s flag, a mekev — piercer or hatchet — which is to be used to destroy idols.
These images and phrases are meant to teach us to know ourselves. We have to know our history, from where we came, and what we stand for. If our people have certain tendencies or leanings, we ought to be proud of them and carry them as banners with pride.
Every Jew needs to know what Judaism has said about Judaism, what our religion stands for, and what our people stand for. We should not look to the general society, or to people who want to redefine what Judaism is all about, in order to kowtow to the demands of people who only want to take advantage of our natural tendencies of tolerance and care for underdogs.
When the world will allow the Jews to live in peace, we will respond in kind. We honor and respect the laws of tolerant and civil societies. We march to the beat of the Torah’s drum — which mandates ethical living and following the law of the land — and we carry the character traits our forefathers defined for themselves and held with pride as they marched toward the Promised Land.