BAMIDBAR 5777 - The Israeli Flag
Is it a coincidence that Jerusalem Day—which we celebrated this year this past Wednesday—usually falls out in close proximity to today’s Torah portion? I think one connection has to do with flags. Every year tens of thousands of people from around the world come to Jerusalem on Yom Yerushalayim to take part in the annual Flag Parade through the heart of the city. The parade ends with a celebratory ceremony and prayer the Kotel. This year on the 50th anniversary of the restoration of Jerusalem, it was truly special with hundreds of thousands singing, dancing and waving their flags.
We Jews have had flags for thousands of years. Our Torah portion (Num. 2:2) describes how the Jews encamped in the wilderness after they left Egypt, Ish al diglo (Each person by his flag). According to the Midrash, each flag was adorned with its tribe’s unique colors and symbol. We no longer have the 12 tribal flags, but we do have the Jewish flag, the Israeli flag.
Growing up in Brooklyn, my 1st encounter with the Israeli flag was in shul. There it stood, adjacent to the ark, flanked on the other side by the American flag. Despite a ruling by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein against the placement of the Israeli flag in the sanctuary (Igrot Moshe 1:46), it become a fixture in most shuls.
While some may contend that the Israeli flag is a modern invention, there is a history of Jewish flags. For example, a flag with the Star of David hung prominently in the synagogues of Prague since the 14th century. For centuries flags have been part of Simchat Torah celebrations.
Let’s not forget the obvious: The design of the modern Israeli flag is based on the tallit. The flag of blue and white we are familiar with today was adopted at the First Zionist Congress of 1897, even though it had earlier incarnations.
David Wolffsohn, a banker from Lithuania, who succeeded Theodore Herzl as president of the World Zionist Organization, writes that it was unanimously decided the Israeli flag be blue and white, the same colors as the original tallit: “We already have a flag, white and blue—the tallit that we wrap ourselves up in during prayer. This tallit is our symbol. Let us take the tallit out from its case and unfurl it before the eyes of Israel and before the eyes of all the nations.” By choosing the tallit, Wolffsohn was determined to imbue the flag with religious meaning.
To some religious Jews, however, the flag represents secular Zionism and a secular government at times antagonistic to religion. But the 1st chief rabbi of Israel, Avraham Yizchak Kook, not only allowed the Israeli flag to enter the synagogue, he described it as “holy”—a symbol of Redemption.
2 weeks before Israel declared its independence, the right-wing newspaper, Hamevaser, called on its readers to place the Israeli flag in their windows. And in the years following the establishment of the state, the flag was proudly displayed in charedi homes on Yom Ha’Atzmaut—including the homes of great rabbis.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik expressed the significance of the Israeli flag invoking the custom of burying a Jewish martyr in his blood-soaked clothes as a cry for mercy and vengeance. He wrote:
The blue and white flag, soaked with the blood of thousands of young Jews who fell in the War of Independence, protecting the Land and settlements (religious and non-religious, for the enemy, yemach shemam, did not distinguish), has a spark of sanctity that flows from devotion and self-sacrifice. We are all enjoined to honor the flag and treat it with respect. (Chamesh Derashot, p. 90; Cf. Nefesh ha-Rav, p. 100)
Flags have meaning because of what they represent. For Soloveitchik the Israeli flag is holy because it represents the martyrs who fell in defense of the Holy Land. On this Memorial Day weekend we proudly fly the American flag in memory of those who died in defense of freedom and justice for all.
Susan Rubin, in her book, The Flag With 56 Stars, tells an amazing story about the American flag. Let me read it to you:
It occurred right near the end of the war. Mauthausen was one of the worst of the concentration camps. People were burned, shot and worked to death. And then finally, when the end of the war drew near, the guards knew that the American army would arrive momentarily and so they ran away during the night. When the Jews who were imprisoned in Mauthausen woke up the next morning, they found out that they were free. What should they do with their freedom? Some said: “Let us seize weapons and go after the guards who have tortured us for so long and kill them.” But they weren’t killers.
Some said: “Let us break into the kitchen and gorge ourselves on the food that the Nazis left behind.” But most of them were wise enough to realize that they could not fill their emaciated stomachs with too much food.
Someone came up with an idea. The Americans will be here soon. Let’s greet them and show them how glad we are that they have come. They decided that they would stand at the gates of Mathausen and when the American tanks came into sight, they would cheer with whatever strength they still possessed and wave an American flag.
The only problem was where could they find an American flag? They searched the camp and found some discarded swaths and scraps of cloth: a white one here, a red one there, a blue one here. There were a few tailors in the camp—people who had been kept alive because of their ability to sew Nazi uniforms. These tailors set to work to make an American flag. Betsy Ross herself did not work with as much fervor and determination as these tailors did that night. By dawn they put together an American flag.
There was only one problem. These Jews, who came from Poland, and Lithuania, and Austria, knew how to sew, but had no idea how many stripes and stars there were in the American flag. One said, “I was once in America and I remember. The Stars and Stripes have 13 stripes and 13 stars, in honor of the 13 original states.” And another said, “I remember reading it in a book: The Stars and Stripes has 56 stars, in honor of the 56 states.”
They argued back and forth, and when the 1st American tanks lumbered through the gates of the camp, they were greeted by cheering Jews who presented them with a flag in honor of their liberation with 13 stripes…and 56 stars.
Colonel Richard Seibel was the officer in command that entered Mathausen. He accepted the flag graciously when it was presented to him as a gift on behalf of the prisoners of Mathausen. He was too wise to quibble or to correct the Jews who had worked so hard to make this flag. He simply took it from them, and said thank you. And then he had the Nazi flag lowered and thrown away, and put this flag with its 13 stripes and 56 stars over the Administration Building! And as long as he was in charge of that camp, that was the flag that flew there.
Colonel Seibel later took this flag with him. When he died it went to his son. And when the Simon Weisenthal Center was built in Los Angeles the son donated the flag to the center. He did so because he learned that one of the people who were liberated that day at Mathausen was a man named Simon Weisenthal…
This American flag with 56 stars is also holy because it symbolizes the heart of the Jew. When he crawled out of the hell of Mauthausen he didn’t seek revenge. He said “thank you” to his liberators—to the American army for having rescued him, and for having saved the civilized world from the Nazis.
As for the Israeli flag—the Jewish flag—the State of Israel was not handed to us on a silver platter. We paid a heavy price and continue to sacrifice. This flag is holy for us because it reminds us those sacrifices.
On this Memorial Day weekend, when we remember those who sacrificed their lives so we can live in freedom, let’s also remember that we live in challenging times, complicated times—but also exciting times. We live at a unique moment in history. Our fervent hope and prayer is to see the fulfillment of the words we pray in the daily Amidah: V’sa neys l’kabeytz galuyoteynu, v’kab’tzeynu yachad meyarba kanfot haaretz (Raise the flag to gather our exiles and speedily gather us together from the 4 corners of the earth to our Land). Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis