For many people, one of the most unsettling times of their lives occurs during their college years. For the first 18 years of life, most of us go through a school system in which we are corralled through the same subjects and the same doors of life. But then one gets to college, and there are electives. There is the flexibility of choice. A set of choices that doesn’t stop with one’s classes, but extends to choosing one’s major, one’s profession, and eventually one’s spouse. During these relatively early years of life a number of decisions are placed on us that have a major impact on the trajectory of our lives. For some people, making the transition from being a face in the crowd to being a unique individual can be a frightening process.
Parashat B’midbar begins with the Torah telling us that in the second month of the second year after having left Egypt, God gave each of the 12 tribes their own flag with an insignia representative of each tribe’s distinctive characteristic. These flags were symbolically represented in the way the Jews camped in the desert, “Ish al macha’neihu, ve’ish al diglo,” (1:52) according to their tribal encampment and according to their flags. Rav Yaakov Kamanetzky asks: Why did God wait to introduce the flags until the Jews were more than a year into their journey, instead of giving them the flags immediately upon leaving Egypt?
In order to understand the timing of the institution of the flags, it is important to highlight what took place just a month before the flags were introduced. As described throughout Vayikra, the majority of the Jewish people’s time and efforts since having left Egypt was spent in the construction of the Mishkan, the tabernacle in which God’s shechinah would rest. The Mishkan was in fact only completed and inaugurated during the first month of the second year after having left Egypt. Presenting a unique flag to each of the 12 tribes speaks to the individuality within the nation, but the gesture also carries with it a concern that the flags could create division among the people. In response to that potential risk, God waits to hand out the flags until after the opening of the Mishkan at the center of camp, which will serves as a national reminder of what is at the core of their shared existence – God and God’s relationship with the entire people. In doing so, God impresses upon us the notion that in order to be trusted with one’s individuality, as represented by the flags, one first has to have an overarching sense of purpose to serve as an anchor.
The demand to re-establish what is at the center of our existence, is what the entire upcoming holiday of Shavuot is all about. We spend a holiday dedicating ourselves to identifying our foci, which are God and God’s Torah. Only once that central focus has been established does God remind us that there is also room for degalim, for finding our individuality within the community and within the Torah as well.
The same is true about one’s college years. From my experience, most people don’t wake up one day with an epiphany and make life’s major decisions. Instead, those major decisions form over a lifetime of experiences in which one determines what is fixated at the center of their existence, and then creates oneself around that core. It typically isn’t one class or one experience that shapes a future, but rather, a collection of experiences that help a person home in on what is really important, leading them down the path to figuring out who they are as individuals as well. An experience that some want to call “scary,” whereas others understand it to simply be the journey of life!