The passuk states that Bnei Yisrael should camp איש על דגלו באתת לבית אבותם. Rashi explains each tribe had a banner hung with different colors, the same as the colors of their stone on the Choshen. This way each of the tribes were able to recognize the place where they camped. The Ibn Ezra explains באתת that each flag had a specific symbolic picture representing something about the shevatim. Reuven had the shape of a person, symbolizing the duda’im, Yehudah, a lion as Yaakov called him, Ephraim, an ox, and Dan an eagle. Each person camped by his flag with their colors or symbols. The Sifsei Chachamim adds that the word אבתם refers to each of the tribes’ fathers; Reuven, Shimon and so on, each having their own stone with their specific color and picture on the Choshen.
The Midrash Tanchumah explains באתת refers to the sign which Yaakov made with the shevatim. Yaakov said if you carry me out of Mitzrayim to bury me with a specific order, Hashem will give you degalim. He commanded that Yehuda, Yissachar, and Zevulun be in east; Reuven, Shimon, and Gad in the south; Ephraim, Menashe and Binyomin, in the west; and Dan, Asher, and Naftali in the north. Levi shall not carry since he will carry the Aron, and Yosef shall not carry since he is king, rather Menashe and Ephraim are in their place, having three on each of the directions just as by the Mishkon. The passuk states לבית אבתם to their father’s house, referring to Yaakov, the father of the shevatim.
The Mi’at Tzari explains that Onkelos translates the word דגלו as טקסה as he translates ויאסר which means “and he arranged in order.” Here too, the Bnei Yisrael were arranged in a specific order and setup as to how they should camp. The Midrash Tanchuma brings that Moshe was worried. He said to Hashem that the tribes will argue about where each one should camp. Hashem responded, they already know where to camp from their father. They have טכסים, an arrangement for each of them.
The Mi’at Tzari gives another p’shat that it means a group of many people as it states אימה כנדגלות which Chazal explain means myriads of people. The Midrash brings: Keneses Yisrael said to Hashem, I saw Michael and his degel, Gavriel and his degel, and my eyes saw the טקסים of above in the heaven, and I loved them. At that time Hashem said since it is the interest of My children to camp by degalim, they shall camp by degalim. This is as the passuk states איש על דגלו באתת.
What was the significance of Bnei Yisrael’s camping by degalim? The Chafeitz Chaim explains that the Torah states ונסע אהל מועד מחנה הלויים בתוך המחנות and the Ohel Mo’ed traveled בתוך, the camps. The word בתוך is sometimes translated “in the middle” as it states ועץ החיים בתוך הגן and the tree of life in middle of the garden. The Torah is the עץ החיים, the tree of life, which was inside the Aron in the Ohel Mo’ed, exactly in the middle of Bnei Yisrael, as a bimah is placed in middle of the Shul. It was in the center, equidistant; not closer to one and not further from another, and everyone surrounded it. This is similar to one’s heart which is in the middle of a person, and sends blood and nourishment equally to the entire body. So too the Torah, which is the tree of life, was in the middle of Bnei Yisrael, and its learning would bring life and nourishment to the entire body.
May we learn from the campings and travelings of the Bnei Yisrael to constantly be connected to the Torah, and bring life and nourishment to our entire being!