By Benjamin Gottesman, Arts and Culture Editor
Much of Parshas Bamidbar (weekly Torah portion of Numbers) focuses on the arrangement of the Israelite camp in the desert. The tribes were arranged in a specific order based on a Divine decree. This commandment is introduced as follows (Numbers 2:2, Sefaria Translation):
The Israelites shall camp each with his flag, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance.
HaShem (God) ordains that each tribe must raise a special flag, bearing its own unique insignia, over their camp. These flags litter the parsha, appearing a total of six times. These flags are not insignificant; throughout the parsha, and the rest of Sefer Bamidbar (Book of Numbers), the camps of Israel are described as “flags.” Amazingly, the word “degel” (flag), which appears 13 times in this sefer (book), is never mentioned in any of the other books of the Torah. In fact, outside of Sefer Bamidbar the root word degel only appears five other times in all of Tanach (Bible). It is quite apparent that the word degel/flag is inextricably linked to the nature of the Jewish camp. The obvious question is why. Why are the encampments known by the pretty pictures hanging above them? Why are flags needed in the first place?
The emblem enigma only deepens when one examines the word degel as it appears in context throughout the rest of Tanach. Shlomo HaMelech describes HaShem in Chapter 5, verse 10 (Sefaria Translation) of Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs): “My beloved is clear-skinned and ruddy, “dagul” among ten thousand.”
Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) explains that the word dagul means “elevated like a flag.” It is interesting that throughout Sefer Bamidbar flags are used to describe the Israelites, yet here the Hebrew term is used to describe HaKadosh Baruch Hu (God).
Elsewhere in Shir HaShirim, HaShem responds to Israel (6:4, 10, Sefaria Translation): “You are beautiful, my darling, as Tirzah, comely as Jerusalem, awesome as “nidgalos”… Who is she that shines through like the dawn, beautiful as the moon, radiant as the sun, awesome as “nidgalos”?”
HaShem in turn uses the flag metaphor to laud His beloved nation. This further muddles the mystery. Chazal (our Sages) state explicitly (Tractate Brachos 33) that one must be extraordinarily careful while praising HaShem, only using the terms found in the liturgy. Choosing words to describe HaShem is no small matter, and yet the same term used to describe HaKadosh Baruch Hu is also used to praise Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel).
To understand the true nature of “degel,” the following verse from the Psalmist must be analyzed (Psalms 20:6, Sefaria Translation): “May we shout for joy in your victory, arrayed by flags in the name of our God. May the LORD fulfill your every wish.”
In this pasuk (verse), the flag is ascribed to both HaShem and his people when the Bnei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) triumphantly display flags that are meant to honor HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Interestingly, unlike in the pesukim (verses) from Shir HaShirim, these flags — like the ones in the desert — are literal, not metaphorical. Malbim (Rav Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Wisser, 1809-1879) explains the significance of these flags.
“At the time of lifting the flag for war, it will be called in HaShem’s name, for HaShem is the General of the army Who walks in the front, and the flag is called in His name, and we continue after the flag.”
The flag is much more than a piece of cloth. It is a rallying point that inspires courage and strength. The flag is the symbol that represents the general for whom the soldiers fight. It is a proud reminder of the purpose of the battle. The Psalmist is describing a victorious group of soldiers rallying around the flag of HaShem, paying tribute to their Leader and Source of guidance. The flag is the reminder that the Jewish people have a purpose beyond the mundanity of everyday life.
Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) calls HaShem “elevated like a flag” because HaShem, like a banner, is raised over the nation, serving as their source of awe and hope. Shlomo then describes the nation as using flags, since the thing that makes the nation unique and praiseworthy is their unique relationship with HaShem. What makes the Jewish people different from the great conglomeration of other people is their acknowledgment of the divine flag: when a Jew looks out upon the world and realizes the presence of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, that person achieves unique greatness; when a Jew does a mitzvah (commandment), she reveals HaShem’s presence in this world, thereby achieving a new sublime reality. The flag is thus a constant reminder of HaShem’s existence.
It is now apparent why the Israelite encampments were referred to as flags. If it were not for the flags of HaShem waving overhead, they would have been no more than another mass of desert nomads, wandering in search of a faraway land. It was precisely their relationship with HaShem — cultivated through awareness and action — that elevated them into a people with a purpose. When referring to this holy entity, it is only fitting that they are described using the article that embodied their sacred greatness: the flag.
Shlomo HaMelech refers to the flags one other time in Shir HaShirim. Bnei Yisrael describes their encounter with “the Lover,” HaShem, as follows (Song of Songs 2:4, Sefaria Translation): “He brought me to the house of wine and his banner of love was over me.”
The Midrash explains (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:3): “HaShem desired greatly that the Israelites would establish flags in the desert… so that they would be distinguished. How do we know that this was out of love for Israel? For Shlomo HaMelech wrote: ‘He brought me to the house of wine and his banner of love was over me.’ Rabbi Abahu taught: What is this analogous to? To a wealthy man who has a storehouse full of wine and he goes to inspect it and finds that they [the barrels] are all [full of] vinegar ;as he goes to leave the storehouse and finds one barrel of good wine, he exclaims: ‘this barrel stands for me like a full storehouse!’ Similarly, HaKadosh Baruch Hu created seventy nations, and from all of them he found no pleasure save from Israel, as it is written: ‘he brought me to the house of wine.’ And from where is it known that wine is a metaphor for the seventy nations? The Hebrew word for wine is ‘yayin’ — spelled yud, yud, nun. The letter yud has the numerical value of 10, the second letter yud also equals 10, and the letter nun equals 50. And from all of them: ‘and his banner of love was over me.’”
HaShem examined the deeds of the many nations He had created, and extracted Israel from amidst them to be His people. This expression of love and closeness is marked for eternity by the flag that flew above the Israelite camp, loudly exclaiming that HaShem presides over the nation and that the nation, in turn, looks toward Him lovingly.
For thousands of years in exile, the Jews — despite lacking a camp — maintained their special flags. The Talmud relates (Kiddushin 31a, Sefaria Translation): “Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua, would not walk four cubits with an uncovered head. He said: The Divine Presence is above my head.”
The kippah (skullcap) is treated by Rav Huna as the portable flag, displaying the unique relationship and shared love between the Jewish people and their Creator. However, in today’s age of miracles, a more literal flag is once again carried by the Children of Israel. On the 25th day of Tishrei, 5709 years since the creation of the earth, the State of Israel adopted the official flag of the Jewish people — and the people of the world understood, if only for an instant, what we had always known: the Israelites are the people of the One True God. Just under 20 years after the official raising of the new “degel” of the nation, that same flag was flown for the first time in the streets of Old Jerusalem. On that hallowed day, Jewish paratroopers, bearing the blue-on-white symbol of HaShem, returned to the loving embrace of the Old City in a powerful display of mutual passion between HaKadosh Baruch Hu and His children. Every year this day of love is commemorated by thousands of Jerusalemites in the only way we know how: a dazzling display of flags.
Every nation has a flag, but only one nation flies a “degel.” The next time you see an Israeli flag, whether emblazoned on the uniform of a chayal (Israeli soldier) or flying high over a local shul or school, understand that it is not merely a symbol of nationhood. It is a 4000-year-old reminder of an indescribable relationship between the Jewish people and HaKadosh Baruch Hu. It is the 73-year-old reminder that HaShem still loves us after all these years. It is the 64-year-old reminder that He wants us to come home.
Yom Yerushalayim is the postscript of Shir HaShirim, a tale of romance and passion between the Lover and the Beloved. Their love is a bridge between two worlds — untouchable, unwavering and unbreakable. The Mishnah in Tractate Taanis (26b) describes Shavuos — which is only a few days away — as the marriage between HaShem and Israel, His bride. As we enter into the days before the wedding, let us focus on this love that bursts forth from our souls and hurdles beyond all worlds toward the Ein Sof (God). Let us focus on the love we are given back, a love that permeates every single aspect of our existence.
In just a few days, we will revisit our purpose. In just a few days, the Torah will be given again. In just a few days, we will stand under the canopy and unite with HaShem. Just don’t be surprised if the chuppah (wedding canopy) is blue and white.
Moadim l’simcha l’geula sheleimah (holiday greetings for a complete redemption).