Parashat Bamidbar: "And His Banner Over Me Was Love" (Shir Ha-shirim 2:4)
by Rav Itamar Eldar
Yeshivat Har Etzion
"And his banner over me was love" (Shir ha-Shirim 2:4)
The book of Bamidbar opens with the ordering of the Israelite camp in anticipation of their journey into the wilderness.
The organization takes place on various levels, the central one being the division of tribes and banners:
And the Lord spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying. Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own banner, with the ensigns of their father's house; far off about the Tent of Meeting shall they pitch. (Bamidbar 2:1-2)
The division according to banners, so it seems, is not merely a technical division that establishes the place of each tribe within a particular camp that of Yehuda, Re'uven, Efrayim or Dan but also symbolic. The banner is the symbol of each tribe, the symbol that is hoisted above it and testifies to the character and essence of that tribe.
Chassidic thought, in the footsteps of Chazal, tried to reach a more profound understanding of the issue of the banners, and provide it with a dimension that goes beyond the merely functional.
unity in plurality
R. Kalonymus of Cracow, disciple of the Seer of Lublin, tried to focus on the tension between the unity of Israel, as expressed in: "And they set forward, and they camped, and they arrived: When they came to Mount Sinai they all camped opposite the mountain with a single heart and a single mind," and the plurality rising from "Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own banner."
It seems that while it is true that the holy people of Israel must be bound by a strong and powerful bond in absolute unity, in love, and fraternity, and fellowship, nevertheless [each] person must contemplate and recognize his own worth and who is like him, to which person he should draw himself near. As it is stated in the Midrash: "'The righteous man flourishes like the palm tree' (Tehilim 92:13) just as a palm tree has fruit and leaves and branches, etc., so Israel has people who are fluent in Scripture, people who are fluent in Mishna, [and] people who are fluent in Agada. A person must, therefore, recognize his own value, where is his place and among which people should he rest so that he should be able to achieve the [full] value of his service to his Creator. A person having the value of the great ones should not say: "I will sit among those of little value, and there I will achieve the service of the Creator, blessed be He." Even if he thinks this, and he may be right that by lowering himself he will reach His Godliness, nevertheless, he should not veer from limits of his value. Rather he should trust in God, blessed be He, that He will assist him, and that here too among the great ones, he will be able to attain the quality of submission. And similarly a person of little value should not say: "I will push myself to sit at the head, close to the master, so that I will hear the words of God issuing from his holy mouth, and thus know the way to serve the Creator, blessed be He." Rather, he should sit in the place that is appropriate for him, and not push himself beyond his limit. And he should trust in God, blessed be He, that He will help him and that he will be able to hear the words of the master even from a distance. And similarly we find that Israel camped at a distance of a mil from the [holy] ark. As [the Sages] have learned by way of a gezera shava: It is stated here "opposite," and it is also written regard Hagar, "opposite," see there. And they did not try to rise in level to push themselves to be closer to the ark where Aharon and Moshe were camped, and thus be able to hear words of Torah from their mouths. Rather, each person camped in the place that was appropriate for him. And from where did they desire this that each person should recognize his worth? The Midrash states: "He brought me to the banqueting house" (Shir ha-Shirim 2:4). And this very Midrash is found in Parashat Yitro, and there we find: "You might say: Since they were many, they must have been pressed. Therefore the verse states: ['shin'an' (Tehilim 68:18)] - at ease [sha'anan] and quiet." And we find that the letters of "at ease" [sha'anan] are [the initial letters of the words] shor (ox), arye (lion), nesher (eagle), and the final nun alludes to the man in the [Divine] chariot. The verse alludes that the Holy One, blessed be He, descended upon Mount Sinai with all the chariots, namely the angels of the right and the left, of the east and the west. And no angel yearned for the place of its fellow, nor did it press against another to enter its perimeter. As we find there: "You might say: Since they were many, they must have been pressed." That is to say, that they were pushing each other so that one could enter the perimeter of another. "Therefore the verse states: ['shin'an'] - at ease and quiet." That is to say, each one stood in its place at ease and quiet, even though each one imagined that in its fellow's place, there the revelation of the Shekhina was greater. Nevertheless, it did not move from its appropriate place. (Ma'or va-Shemesh, Bamidbar)
On the one hand, the author of the Ma'or va-Shemesh emphasizes that the people of Israel must be bound together by a strong bond, in absolute unity, and in love and fellowship. On the other hand, R. Kalonymus sees the value of the banners, in that they highlight the worth and value of each member of Israel.
Every person has a banner flying over his head, and he must be aware of his own banner, he must study it, and he must fashion his lifestyle in accordance with it.
Israel' division into banners and camps has two main ramifications:
First, the very breakdown into groups. The camp of Yehuda, the camp of Re'uven, the camp of Levi, and the camp of the priests all these split up the people of Israel, as it were, into groups that had their own sense of identity and belonging, and created internal identification and belonging in the consciousness of every member of Israel. I am not merely an Israelite, I belong to this camp or the other.
The second relates to the position of each camp in relation to the camp of the Shekhina the Mishkan. The division into banners creates a clear hierarchy regarding closeness to and distance from the Mishkan. Let no man break forth to God to draw close to a camp in which he does belong. The Levites guard the inheritance of God, and they too must take care not to ascend to God and break forth into the Holy.
These two ramifications, according to the author of the Ma'or va-Shemesh, are what establish man's position in space, vis-a-vis society and vis-a-vis God.
First of all, when a person is aware of his own place, when he knows his banner, he knows where to locate himself socially. "So Israel has people who know Scripture, people who know Mishna, [and] people who know Agada." The correlation between a person's area of expertise, his occupation, and his nature, on the one hand, and his banner, on the other, allows him to actualize his powers, to stimulate his surroundings, and to maintain a meaningful dialogue between himself and his neighbor.
As was stated, however, this consciousness is also relevant to a person's standing vis-a-vis God. A person should not breach the boundaries that had been set for him and try to set himself up on a level that is inappropriate for him: "And they did not try to rise in level to push themselves to be closer to the ark."
It seems that the reason for this boundary that R. Kalonymus wishes to construct is learned from the analogy to the angels who were the chariot for the Divine revelation at Mount Sinai, as is stated by the Midrash:
R. Avadimi of Haifa said: Twenty-two thousand [angels] went down with the Holy One, blessed be He, to Sinai. As it is stated: "The chariots of god are twice ten thousand, twice a thousand" (Tehilim 68:18) the most becoming [shin'an = shena'in] and the choicest. You might say: Since they were many, they must have been pressed. Therefore the verse states: shin'an - at ease [sha'anan] and quiet. (Shemot Rabba 29, 2)
Twenty-two thousand angels bore the Shekhina on their shoulders, and exemplary order was maintained for the entire course of the revelation. Every angel knew its place and made no attempt to change it. No angel tried to see more, to draw closer, to raise itself above the rest. The secret of that success, so it would seem, lies in the very incorporation of all twenty-two thousand angels into the "chariot." At that very moment, when every angel gave up its personal apprehension and internalized the awareness of the chariot that bears the Shekhina, it also began to identify with the place and the role that it had been given in the framework of that mission.
A cymbalist playing at a concert knows that over the course of the evening he will play his instrument only two or three times. But the moment that he considers the melody and the harmony, and not his personal honor, he is happy with the role that he has been assigned, and has no desire to expand the boundaries of that role.
This understanding of the "chariot" is what bridges between the divisive banners and the overall unity. The camps and the banners do indeed divide the camp of Israel into smaller and more isolated groupings. When, however, the banner is directed toward the center, and a supreme objective stands before and hovers over all the banners, and all the banners constitute a chariot and the means to bear and elevate this supreme goal the Mishkan that stands at the center of the camp plurality turns into unity and division turns into variety.
It appears, however, that R. Kalonymus wishes to reach an even more profound understanding, as is implied in the continuation of the passage:
This is the meaning of the aforementioned Midrash: "Another explanation: 'He brought me to the banqueting house" (Shir ha-Shirim 2:4) when the Holy One, blessed be He, went down to Mount Sinai, twenty-two thousand myriads of angels went down with him. As it is stated, etc. And they all formed banners." This means that they each camped in their own camp under their own banner, and that not one of them moved from his perimeter even to see the glorious majesty of the greatness of the Creator, blessed be He. Rather, each one stood in its place at ease and quiet. And it trusted that God would help it see from its place that was appropriate for it. "And when Israel saw this, they began to desire banners. They said: Would that we should become banners like them." That is to say, would that this quality should be among us, that each person should recognize the place appropriate for him and not push against another person so that he may rise higher. Rather, he should trust that the Holy One, blessed be He, will help him reach and hear the service of God from his place. Thus, it says: "'And His banner [vediglo] over me was love' (Shir ha-Shirim 2:4). They said: But for Him, who extends [magdil] love to me." That is to say: But for him, if it is His will, blessed be His name, He will extend love to me, that I should love Him, blessed be His name. Even if I sit in my place, I will attain His love, blessed be His name. And if it is not the will of the Creator, blessed be His name, even if I go up to heaven I will not attain anything, from small to large.
And the Midrash says: "And so it says: 'May we rejoice in Your salvation' (Tehilim 20:6)." That is to say, in this we shall rejoice, in His salvation. If he saves [us], we shall apprehend His Godliness, blessed be His name. It does not depend upon our pushing ourselves into the places of other people who are greater than us. "The Holy One, blessed be He, said: 'Why do you desire to become banners?'" That is to say, that no person should leave his level, pushing himself into another person's place. Rather, he should recognize his appropriate value, and not enter another person's perimeters. "By your lives that I will fill, etc." And Israel learned this level at Sinai, when they saw the angels becoming banners, that one did not enter the space of the other; Mikha'el did not enter the space of Gavri'el, etc. Rather, each one stood in its place and from there each one apprehended in accordance with its intellect. Thus Israel yearned and said: Would that we become like that, that no one should press another person to enter beyond the level appropriate for him. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe: "Do this for them." That is to say, since you desire banners so that nobody should enter the perimeters of another, but rather every person should want to receive in accordance with his preparation - do that for them: the camp of the Levites apart, the camp of the Israelites apart, each one under his banner, those from the east, and those from the south, etc. So that nobody should enter, but only to those who are similar to him, as is explained in the Midrash, that all the tribes of the banners belonged together, each banner according to what was appropriate for it. Understand this. (Ma'or va-Shemesh, Bamidbar)
R. Kalonymus is trying here to change the standards that guide a person who wishes to ascend the mountain of God.
The identification with the station in which a person finds himself, and the demand to remain in that place and not try to go anywhere else, is not merely a matter of giving up on one's personal achievement and accepting the task that had been cast upon him. Rather it also involves the recognition that the path to God does not depend upon the place, "that I should love Him, blessed be His name. Even if I sit in my place, I will attain His love, blessed be His name. And if it is not the will of the Creator, blessed be His name, even if I go up to heaven I will not attain anything, from small to large."
Some Jews, complains the author of the Ma'or va-Shemesh, invest all their energy and efforts in acquiring a place that gives the appearance of "being closer." Drawing closer to the rabbi, sitting in a seat that is closer to the ark of the Torah, studying in the most prestigious yeshiva, and so forth.
Closeness to God rests on mutual love; this love does not depend upon place, it being capable of bridging great distances. Recognizing that closeness to God depends upon desire and not place allows a person to invest all his resources in arousing desire and nurturing love, and not in searching for a different place from where "he can see better."
The words of the Ma'or va-Shemesh are based on the following Midrash:
Another explanation: "He brought me to the banqueting house" (Shir ha-Shirim 2:4). When the Holy One, blessed be he, revealed Himself on Mount Sinai, twenty-two myriads of angels went down with Him. As it is stated: 'The chariots of god are twice ten thousand, twice a thousand.' And they all formed banners. As it is stated: "Distinguished among ten thousand" (Shir ha-Shirim 5:10). When Israel saw that they formed banners, they began to desire banners. They said: Would that we formed banners like them. Thus it is stated: "He brought me to the banqueting house" this is Sinai where the Torah was given which is likened to wine: "And drink of the wine that I have mingled" (Mishlei 9:5). "To the banqueting house" this is Sinai. "And His banner over me was love." They said: But for Him, who extends love to me. And so it says: "May we rejoice in Your salvation, etc." (Tehilim 20:6). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: What is your desire to form banners? By your lives, I will fulfill your desires: "Let the Lord fulfill all your desires" (Tehilim 20:6). (Bamidbar Rabba 2, 3).
"They began to desire banners," says the Midrash. The author of the Ma'or va-Shemesh explains this desire as a desire for harmonious wholeness where everybody knows his place, and everybody awaits the Divine lights from his own place, as did the angels who bore the Shekhina at Mount Sinai.
"And His banner over me was love," according to R. Kalonymus, is the recognition that I will attain God's love through my own banner, which is the banner of God and the banner raised for Him. Nobody has to change his banner, nobody has to graze in foreign fields, and nobody has to worry about his own place. God's love will rest upon us wherever we set up our banner as the instrument of that resting.
One of the main principles of the Chassidic outlook is the kabbalistic idea that "no place is void of Him." From the moment that we recognize this theological idea, we can hope for God's salvation and His love in any place.
And once again, it is this recognition that recreates unity. For the recognition that God's love and His Shekhina rest wherever God's banner is flown, is what turns the plurality of places and worlds into a single unity that receives God's light and exposes the light resting within it, uniting it with all other worlds.
The tension between "the place that the Lord will choose" and "in all places where I cause My name to be pronounced, I will come to you and I will bless you" (Shemot 20:21) is resolved through the profound recognition that "all places" can become "the place that the Lord will choose," this being "And His banner over me was love."
And His leaping (ve-dilugo) Over me was love
According to R. Kalomymus of Cracow, the banners symbolize the limitations and qualities of each individual, in the confines of which a person must remain, and from which he must strive for God and His revelation.
The Sefat Emet seems to take a step in a totally opposite direction:
In the Midrash: "'Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own banner, with the ensigns of their father's house.' 'We will exult over your victory, [and raise our banners in the name of God]; let Him fulfill all your desires' (Tehilim 20:6). For the children of Israel yearned for banners, etc. This can be likened to a wine cellar, etc. 'And His banner over me was love, etc.' As it is written: 'Some trust in chariots, [and some in horses]; but we will make mention of the name of the Lord our God' (Tehilim 20:8)." For the Holy One, blessed be He, arranged and set different levels in the upper worlds, so that there could be communion, and cleaving and a drawing of strength to each and every creature and nation. But the children of Israel cleave to God, blessed be He, Himself. And Chazal have said: The Patriarchs are the chariot. If so, their cleaving to God, blessed be He, Himself, is above the chariot. And since the children of Israel yearned to cleave to their supreme source, for they are the opposite of the nations, they all wishing to draw vitality to themselves whereas the children of Israel wish to efface themselves to the Holy One, blessed be He. Therefore, God, blessed be He, fulfilled their desire and gave them banners, which allude to supernal things in heaven This is also what is written in the Midrash: "And His leaping (dilugo) over me was love." The children of Israel were given this strength that through their yearning and desire they could cleave even above their levels. (Sefat Emet, Bamidbar 5635)
The disagreement between the Sefat Emet and the author of the Ma'or va-Shemesh begins with their respective interpretations of the idea of "banner." Whereas for the Ma'or va-Shemesh, the term denotes a boundary, the characterization and definition of a person which constitutes his banner, according to the Sefat Emet, the banner alludes to "supernal things in heaven."
The Sefat Emet talks about "an order of drawing close" to God, according to which the entire world runs. There are levels, and each and every person and nation merit to cleave in some manner to God, in accordance with his or its level and place. This is "mediated" cleaving, that is to say, cleaving by way of the vessels and garments that were placed in this world in order to allow everyone to touch them and through them absorb and draw light from God. This is not true about Israel, argues the Sefat Emet, who merit to cleave, as it were, to God Himself.
This idea may be clarified by way of the distinction between the various Divine names.
The well-known distinction between the various names of God, one that we have mentioned several times over the course of these lectures, is the distinction between the Tetragrammaton (Yod-He-Vav-He) and the name Elokim.
The term Elokim is descriptive, describing God as possessor of all the powers in the world. It signifies that all the forces that we encounter in the natural world are a revelation and expression of God.
The Tetragrammaton, on the other hand, is, as it were, God's personal name. It does not describe any function or role, but rather God's essence.
We can now say that God appears to the nations of the world through the name Elokim, whereas to Israel He appears through the Tetragrammaton. That is to say, God appears to the nations of the world by way of His powers and His garments, i.e., through nature and its laws. To Israel, on the other hand, He appears, as it were, without the garments of laws and nature just He Himself, He, and not an angel, He, and not a seraph, He, and not an intermediary.
Israel's encounter with God is, as it were, an unmediated encounter. God does not turn to us indirectly, through the laws of nature, through acts, through events, but rather through prophecy, the voice of God "Moshe speaks, and God answers Him with a voice" (Shemot 19:19).
This unmediated encounter lacks levels and stages. This may be likened to a king who sits on his throne in his palace, and his subjects pass their requests to him through agents and through the king's officers, each of his subjects in accordance with his standing. Some reach lowly clerks, some reach junior officers, and some reach the most senior officers who themselves see the king. But none of them get to see the king himself. And then all of a sudden a close friend of the king arrives, and tries to find the shortest path via which to direct his request to the king. While he is talking about the king, the king hears his voice filled with love and yearning, and opens the doors of his chamber and runs and leaps to his beloved, ignoring order, ignoring etiquette, and ignoring hierarchy.
This, asserts the Sefet Emet, is the meaning of "And His banner over me was love" read not "His banner (diglo)," but rather "His leaping (dilugo)." The petition and yearning for banners, according to the Sefat Emet, is not a petition for order, for boundaries, for every person to recognize his place, as was understood by the Ma'or va-Shemesh, but rather the exact opposite. Israel contemplates all of Divine governance and the levels that it outlines, and they yearn for the highest levels. They are not excited about the order and the levels presented to them, but rather they wish to leap over them and see the face of the king. And God who loves those who love Him leaps toward them: "When I went out to greet You, I found you coming toward me."
Love upsets order, and therefore when there is love, there are no boundaries and no levels, no etiquette and no customary ways. When love breaks out, an intoxicating pleasure overpowers the lovers, and, like gazelles and hinds, they leap upon the mountains and skip over the hills: "He brought me to the banqueting house, and His banner over me was love" (Shir ha-Shirim 2:4). The degel (banner) turns into dilug (leaping), and the ensign, "the ensigns of their father's house," turns into light.
In the Midrash: "'Let the Lord fulfill all your desires' for the children of Israel yearned for banners, as it is written: 'And His banner over me was love.'" Also on the verse: "Who is she and terrible as an army with banners" (Shir ha-Shirim 6:10). This implies that the banners are an exceedingly high level. And the ides is like what is found in the holy Zohar that a person acquires NaRaN [nefesh, ru'ach, neshama] one level after the next. Thus, the children of Israel at the exodus from Egypt acquired a nefesh, and at the giving of the Torah a ru'ach, and in the Mishkan and the Mikdash a neshama. And we find that during the performance of mitzvot, we merit a nefesh, and while engaged in the words of the Torah, a ru'ach, and in thought and desire, a neshama. Therefore, they merited the banners through the yearning and the desire of the heart, for it is a level that can be acquired only through desire. (Sefat Emet, Bamidbar, 5647)
The book of Bamidbar which we begin to read this week opens a new period, leaving behind the glorious and splendid periods of the past. The exodus from Egypt with its miracles and signs, from the plagues to the parting of the sea. The giving of the Torah and the majesty that accompanied it, from beginning to end. And now we deal with the technical arrangement of the camps, the journeys in accordance with the order of the banners, at the center of which stands the Mishkan.
The Sefat Emet, however, turns everything upside down, arguing that whereas the exodus from Egypt and even the giving of the Torah touched only the garments - the ru'ach and the nefesh - the banners and the Mishkan standing at their center touched the neshama.
The Sefat Emet argues that the exodus from Egypt and its accompanying miracles represent the world of action, and the giving of the Torah and all that accompanied it represent the world of knowledge, or perhaps we should say the world of thought. Thus, the banners represent a world that is higher than actions and knowledge namely the world of desire. Desire comes from man's innermost place, from his essence, and not from his garments. Knowledge and actions belong to the world of garments, but desire belongs to essence.
It is precisely in a world lacking great lights, where the natural order does not change and submit itself to Divine governance, when man and his banner stand before God, that inner yearning and love can break out, giving rise to leaping and unmediated contact. No more tablets of stone and written Torah, no more parting seas and hail and fire from heaven. Now it is time for love the leap.
Ratzo va-SHov (Back and forth)
This tension between the words of the Ma'or va-Shemesh and those of the Sefat Emet does not lend itself to resolution.
What is the spiritual guidance in "Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own banner, with the ensigns of their father's house"? What banner must we raise above us?
Is it our humble and self-effacing recognition of boundaries that turns us into a chariot for the Shekhina and likens us to the ministering angels? Or perhaps it is the infinite yearning to breach all boundaries and touch the Ayin that has no garments?
Do we express our love for God through our genuine and self-effacing readiness to remain in our places and accept upon ourselves the destiny and mission that God has assigned to us, even if it is void of radiance and brilliance? Or perhaps through our unrealistic yearning to leap over all boundaries and skips over mountains toward the object of our love?
Does desire become exposed by giving up on a "different place," and through the simple faith that "no place is void of Him" and "in all places where I cause My name to be pronounced, I will come to you and I will bless you"? Or perhaps by ignoring boundaries and daring to ask for God's closeness from the highest and closest point which is light-years away from our current place and level?
It seems that the essence of our lives lies in the constant movement back and forth between these two poles. We ask to climb heavenward to the Ayin and to the noble light, above all boundaries and all levels, and sometimes we even merit to taste the pleasures of the world-to-come. But then we fall back to our places, to the banner that sets a boundary. And then when we are there, we must recognize the encounter that grows out of the boundary and out of the honest and refined desire for the love of God - the aspect of "The Lord appeared to me from afar, saying, I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have remained true to you" (Yirmiyahu 31:2).
 Owing to the length of the passage, we will split it into two sections.
 Other Chassidic thinkers expounded the continuation of the verse: "Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own banner, with the ensigns of their father's house" based on the enigmatic Midrash which states: "Read not 'with the signs' (otot), but rather 'with the letters' (otiyot)." That is to say, each man in Israel has his own unique letter in God's Torah, and it falls upon him to find it and use it as a gate to God (see Ma'or Einayim, Bamidbar, of R. Menachem Nachum Twerski of Chernobyl, and Ohev Yisra'el, Bamibar, of R. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apta).
And similarly R. Mordekhai Yosef Leiner of Izbica: "'And the Lord spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying. Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own banner, with the ensigns of their father's house.' There is in the Midrash: '"What will you see in the Shulamite" (Shir ha-Shirim 7:1) like the dance of the camps.' The Midrash expounds this verse as referring to the encampments of the banners. And this idea of the encampments of the banners is that each and every person would stand in the place that is appropriate for him in his source, and he would recognize his place " (Mei ha-Shilo'ach, Bamidbar).
 El denotes power "It is in the power (el) of my hand to do you hurt" (Bereishit 31:29), and Elokim denotes all the powers.
 The mathematical value of the word Elokim (86) is the same as that of the word ha-teva. And here lies the delicate boundary between the recognition that nature is a revelation of God, and the heretical idea of the school of Spinoza that nature is God.
 The first to point out this distinction was R. Yehuda ha-Levi in his Kuzari (IV, 1).
 Based on Bamidbar Rabba 2, 3.
 "It seems that the Mishkan and the banners parallel the four powers of holiness. The Mishkan which has three areas distinct in their holiness - the courtyard, the Tent of Meeting, and the Holy of Holies parallels the three powers of holiness in the Patriarchs, and the banners which constitute cleaving to their Father in heaven with strong love and extreme yearning, as it is written: 'And His banner over me was love.' And Israel desired and were very eager for the banners, as in the Midrash, paralleling the thirst for holiness, which is the quality of King David, of blessed memory" (Shem mi-Shemu'el, Bamidbar, 5676).
 Though the Sefat Emet combines thought and desire in a single category, he seems to be referring to a different kind of thought than that which represents the intellect.
 In kabbalistic thought, desire is often identified with the incomprehensible and unrealizable Ayin.
(Translated by David Strauss)