The B’nei Yisra’el must have been a colourful sight, not only when they moved but when they encamped. All arrayed around the centrepiece of the Tabernacle, the components of the camp all had their own mark of identity, their own rallying point, their own logo and symbol.
Where did the idea come from? The explanation of the sages is that it reflected the pattern in heaven, where each group of angels has its own name, identity and distinguishing mark. Impressed at the thought, the Israelites asked God to organise something similar for their camp on earth. The Almighty agreed, and the result was as described in B’midbar.
One of the questions we ask is why heaven needs banners and flags. It should not be assumed that angels have no differences between them, even though they work together under the superintendence of the Holy One, blessed be He.
Ophanim are not seraphim, er’elim are not cherubim – they are all distinctive, but the important principle is that they work together.
What their pattern shows us on earth is that human beings are not all clones of one another but have their distinctive traits and traditions. The important thing is to follow your individual identity, to respect the other person’s distinctiveness, and t work together as “one band doing the will of the Almighty”.