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Parsha Bamidbar

May 28, 2017

Each One Must Have a Flag
Bamidbar, 5777
Shmuel Herzfeld


One evening in Haiti we were driving back to our Hotel and there was a blockade on the main road so the driver had to make a detour. We drove in our SUV past a famous Hatian chuch, which had been destroyed by the 2010 earthquake and still lay in ruins. As we drove past the church we saw that homeless people had built shacks there to live in. We saw homeless babies lying on makeshift beds on the street. I asked our driver to stop because I wanted to get out and give out the wad of single dollar bills that I had on me. He looked at me like I was crazy and said, “no, no, no.” I said I really want to give them money. So he said, “Give me the money. I will do it.”

He rolled down his window a little and stuck out a dollar for one of the homeless people. Within seconds there were scores of people literally jumping on our car and rocking our car. I saw in their eyes what appeared to me to look like desperation like I have never ever seen before. They stuck their entire bodies into our car through the window. There were so many jumping on the car that they began to rock the car. I was shocked and scared. The driver started to drive away. But many still remained on the car as we were driving. Finally the driver gave it a burst of gas and most of the people got off the car. But several still remained hanging on to the car as the driver kept shifting gears and stopping and going as fast as 30 mph. They were hanging on like James Bond in a movie. Finally, after driving for a few blocks there were just a few left and the driver gave them each a dollar. They were content and left.

I kept thinking about that story after I returned home. Then I realized where did I put that wad of single. I had shoved into a pocket in my suitcase and thrown my suitcase in the attic. I hadn’t thought twice about that money.

It meant everything to those people.

When I looked into their eyes, I had never seen that look before. These people had nothing. A dollar represented to them a pot of gold. To us a single dollar is almost nothing. To them it was something worth risking their lives for.

Our small group went on a mission to Haiti this week. In visits that were arranged by the charity, Chances for Children, we visited two orphanages and a small village called, La Tapi.

In the orphanages we saw pure love and joy. The children were so excited by our visit. They sang us songs and played with us. We brought them toys and treats, which were more for us than for them. They all embraced us and made us feel loved.

Why did we go to these Haiti? Why did we go to these orphanages?

I know that many people in our congregation have had experiences in poor countries. I know that these problems have existed for a long time and for many of you I am not here to tell you anything new. I just felt the religious obligation to leave my bubble and visit Haiti.

First and foremost there is a biblical commandment to help orphans.

The Torah states that we must give food to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow in our midst (Devarim, 14:29).

So too, it states about the upcoming holiday of Shavuot: “You shall rejoice with the stranger, the widow, and the orphan” (Devarim, 16:11).

Specifically on the holiday of Shavuot, as we harvest our bounty, we are commanded to celebrate with the orphans.

Indeed this is the theme of chapter 2 of the Book of Ruth. As Ruth and Na’ami return from Moab, Ruth goes out and gleans in the field. Boaz lets Ruth (who is herself a stranger, and an orphan, and a widow) glean in his fields and says to her: “Do not go and glean in another field” (2:8). Stay in my field and take from my crops.

It is from this act of kindness on the part of Boaz that the melekh hamashiach--King David, is born.

So there is a biblical commandment to help the orphans and in that spirit I went to Haiti.

One of the orphanages we visited raises children there till they are the age of 18. There were 40 children in this orphanage.

The other one is called a crčche and it is place that prepares the orphans for adoption.

Interacting with orphans and offering them support is a mitzvah and that is why I went.

Indeed, the act of adopting a child is certainly a great mitzvah.

In this week’s portion the Torah says, “These are the children of Aharon and Moshe…and these are the names of the sons of Aharon” (3:1).

The difficulty with the verse is that it starts off by saying these are the children of Moshe and Aaron, but then it only list the children of Aaron. Where are Moshe’s children?

Explains the Talmud: “Whoever teaches a child how to live is considered like he or she is the parent of that child” (Sanhedrin, 19b).

The Talmud is saying that Moshe Rabbenu was considered like he was the teacher and parent of Aaron’s children.

Implicit in this teaching is that we are supposed to be like Moses. We are supposed to try to impact and help children whether or not they carry our DNA.

Indeed, Moshe himself was adopted, by an Egyptian, no less. As the Talmud says, “Yocheved yaldah ubatyah gidlah, Yocheved gave birth and Batya raised Moshe, therefore he was called by Batya’s name” (Sanhedrin, 19b).

The Torah tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu was the greatest human being ever. What is the connection between him being the greatest human and him being adopted by an Egyptian? Was it his adoption from a basket on a river that sensitized him to unconditional kindness and made him such a great leader?

So too, in the book of Ruth we are told that Ruth’s child, Oved, was adopted by Naami, and was called Naami’s child (not Ruth’s) as the verse states: “And the neighbors said, a child has been born to Naami” (Ruth 4:17). But, asks the Talmud, “Was a child born to Naami or to Ruth? Ruth bore him and Naami raised him, therefore Naami is considered to have given birth to him” (Sanhedrin, 19b).

So we see that the ethos of caring for an orphan or an unattended child is woven into the very essence of the Torah. It is not tangential. It is central to our holidays, central to many commandments, and central to the biography of our human redeemers (Moshe and David). It is also significant that our entire Exodus from Egypt was made possible by the adoption of Moshe by an Egyptian. The Torah is saying that if an unredeemed Egyptian could adopt an orphan, then surely must we do so as well.

It is also a matter of halakhah. The law is that if one is an adopted child, the child must honor his or her adoptive parents in the exact same manner as they would a biological parent, and indeed, when the moment of death comes, sit shiva and say kaddish for them. (See Nishmat Avraham, citing R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, volume 5: 141.)

As the Talmud says, “kol hamegadel yatom betokh beito, maaleh alav hakativ keilu yaldo, whoever raises an orphan in their home, the Torah considers it as though he gave birth to the child” (Sanhedrin, 19b).

But our trip to Haiti was not only about connecting with orphans. It was primarily about a basic desire to connect on a human level with people who are in need of help.

As we were driving towards the village we passed through a city called, Archaye. The town was decorated in a festive mood and our driver explained that the holiday known as Hatian Flag Day was just celebrated there because that city was the birthplace of the Hatian Flag. The legend of the Hatian flag is that in 1803 as part of the Hatian revolution against France, the French tricolor flag was seized and the white center part was ripped out and thus was born the Hatian flag.

We all have our own flags. This past week we saw the Israeli flag as it was proudly waved in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Israel’s greatest military victory.

A flag is a beautiful thing. In Israel it represents all of our struggles throughout our history and finally the tremendous personal and national sacrifices that were made to found the state of Israel. So too, in Haiti it represents the glorious history of Haiti. Haiti was the first country in which colonial slaves gained freedom after a revolution by the slaves that ended in 1804 with Haiti’s independence.

The flag represents pride and glory.

The concept of the flag is a Torah idea as it says, “Ish al diglo beotot, each man must have a flag and its sign” (Bamidbar 2:2). The formation of the Israelite tribes around their own flags is a major theme of our parasha.

The keli yakar (ad. loc.) discusses the biblical commandment for each tribe to have a flag and suggests, “It is a sign of victory in battle.”

The flag inspires pride and patriotism.

But a flag can also be isolating.

Sometimes it is necessary because we want to inspire fear and awe from bullies so that they leave us alone.

But there is a danger to that. We can sometimes become so devoted to the flag that we push it to an extreme. Then we run the risk of only worrying about our own flag and not helping others. This can lead to arrogance, cruelty, and living in a society that only cares about itself.

Keli yakar offers another explanation for why the Israelites had to have a flag: “To tell the people of the world that we come in the name of God.”

According to this approach, the flag is meant to inspire others; to show that we come in peace; that we are here to connect; and that we are all children of God.

There was an incredible amount of poverty and devastation that I saw in Haiti. I felt nauseated at times. But I also felt uplifted. The Hatian people I met were wonderful, hospitable, hard working, smart, and kind. They were not giving up or feeling sorry for themselves. The orphans were happy and loving.

And I was constantly amazed by the holy work of volunteers that I witnessed. I was grateful to the organization that escorted me around Haiti—Chances for Children—for all the great work that they do every single day.

The plane ride down to Haiti was filled with Christian ministers, each of them in their own way going down to try and make a difference for good. On the plane ride back, we met a Church group from Delaware that had traveled down to Haiti to build a Church on a mountain. They literally had to carry the materials up the mountain because no truck could drive on the non-existent roads.

These NGO organizations inspired me. They were saying we are carrying our flag. But it is not a flag celebrating our own victory but a flag saying that we are coming in the name of God to connect and grow together.

Ultimately that was the reason that I went as well. I just wanted to connect.

On one of the days of our visit we drove to the village of La Tapi. It was geographically very close but it still took us four hours to get there as the road was not paved and was filled with sinkholes. The road was next to a canal, which was where everyone was bathing, and doing their laundry. There was no running water or visible electricity in the village and the villagers lived in huts made out of mud.

We arrived in the village and visited the church—a one-room hut that also served as a school. Chances for Children donated a water filter system so that villagers can take water from the canal and filter it out before drinking it. Chances for Children provides a lunch program at the church so that 200 kids get a high protein meal on a regular basis.

As we got out of our car we were embraced like heroes. The children grabbed our hands and proudly showed us their village.

We gave out the food in the church and I had the great honor of addressing these children. I taught them two Hebrew words: shalom and yachad. I explained that shalom means peace and yachad means together. The love I felt in that room was pure and intense. The children immediately started clapping and singing those words in Hebrew. They were so excited to learn from us.

We all have our own flags but we are all in this world together. That to me is the message of Moshe Rabbenu being saved by an Egyptian and Ruth being saved by the kindness of Boaz.

I don’t yet know when our next visit to Haiti will be. I do know that the problems there are not easy to solve and I don’t claim to know any solutions. But moving forward I do feel a biblical obligation to connect with the people of Haiti.

When we are ready to use our flags to help others, then we ourselves will be stronger and we will be better able to bring the redemptive teachings of our Torah to the world.



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