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Dedication of the American and Israeli Flags on the bimah of Congregation Kol Ami

January 05, 2007

The fact that we have arrived at this moment in our congregation’s history to dedicate the American and Israeli flags on our bimah is very significant. Until this past September, we were always in someone else’s home – Gratz College or Congregation Melrose B’nai Israel – and while we were always made to feel welcome, those places were not our spiritual home. From the time of our ‘First Shabbat Service of Dedication’ on September 16, 2006, we have a place to call our own: a makome and, here, a mishkahn, a tabernacle, a sanctuary, an echo of the Tent of Meeting that accompanied us in the wilderness, the model for what would become the Temple in Jerusalem. The ancient mishkahn contained the Ark of the Covenant and, in it, the tablets of the Ten Commandments, and arrayed around the mishkahn were banners, or flags.

“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral houses. They shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance [of 3,000 feet on each side]” {Numbers 2:1-2}. Three tribes were positioned on each of the four sides of the tent, and when the people broke camp to resume their journey after days, weeks, months or years, everyone proceeded under the banner of his or her tribe [“They camped by their banners and so they marched, each with his tribe” {Numbers 2:34}]. Each flag was a different color, corresponding to each of the twelve precious stones on the breastplate that Aaron wore. According to ancient midrashim, Reuben’s stone was ruby and the color of his flag was red, and so on and so forth for each tribe.

The Hebrew word degehl, used in the Bible, refers to the order in which the children of Israel pitched their tents and proceeded through the wilderness in formations that protected the mishkahn, each formation identified by its degehl, the present-day meaning,“flag.” Of course, in the Diaspora there was no Jewish army or Jewish state, and so there was no state-commissioned Jewish flag. During the latter part of the Middle Ages, emperors granted flags to Jewish communities. In 1648, the Jews of Prague were awarded a flag – it can be seen to this day in that city’s Altneuschul synagogue – in recognition for their part in the defense of the city against the Swedes. The flag is red and in the middle is a yellow Shield of David. From that point on, the Shield of David – or Star of David – became a recognized Jewish symbol, first by the leaders of the Jewish communities of Prague and Vienna, and spreading from there all over the world. The Rothschild and Montefiore families incorporated it in their family coat of arms.

In 1896, Theodor Herzl proposed his idea for a Jewish flag in his book The Jewish State: the Shield of David was to have each of the points of the two triangles tipped by a star, with a seventh star above the Shield, the seven stars symbolizing his vision of seven hour workdays. A year after the publication of The Jewish State, the First Zionist Congress was held {August 29th, 1897} in Basel. Just two years prior to the First Zionist Congress, Herzl wrote, “Not everyone who is first considered insane is correct thirty years later. But in order to be proven right in thirty years, one has to be prepared in the first few weeks to be considered a madman.” He was, indeed, by many, but his dream of the modern Jewish State was to become reality in only 51 years! Herzl’s ‘blueprint’ for the State of Israel – as we wend our way back to the flag – was given voice in his novel Altneuland {Old Newland} written in 1902: all land was publicly owned; industries, newspapers, banks and department stores were cooperatively owned by workers and consumers; cities featured mass transit systems, powered by electricity, including a monorail; irrigation made the desert bloom; women had the right to vote; and the work day was seven hours in duration. The official motto of the state would be, “Man, thou art my brother!”

The Israeli flag, in its present form – two blue stripes on a white background with a Shield of David in the center – was first displayed in Rishon l’Tzion in 1885. Symbolizing the tallit, called “the traditional flag of the Jewish people” by David Wolffsohn, Herzl’s closest ally, who after Herzl’s death in 1904 would become president of the Zionist movement, the flag was placed over the entry hall at the First Zionist Congress. In retrospect, Wolffsohn would later remark, “This is how our national flag was born, and no one wondered how or from where it developed.” In 1933, the 18th Zionist Congress declared that “by long tradition, the blue-and-white flag is the flag of the Zionist Organization and the Jewish people.”

At four o’clock in the afternoon on Friday, May 14th, 1948, over two hundred people crammed into the Tel Aviv Art Museum’s central hall. David ben Gurion, head of the National Council of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel, rose to speak under a picture of Theodor Herzl, the man who had dreamt of that moment when he founded modern Zionism just fifty-one years earlier. Herzl’s picture was bordered on either side by the flag proclaimed fifteen years earlier, at the 18th Zionist Congress, as “the flag of the Zionist Organization and the Jewish people.” Ben Gurion read from a simple typed page: “In the Land of Israel the Jewish people came into being. In this land was shaped their spiritual, religious and national character…It is the national right of the Jewish people, like any other people, to control their own destiny in their sovereign State. Accordingly, we…do hereby proclaim the establishment of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel, to be called Israel.” Rabbi Maimon rose and recited the sheh’heh’chiyanu, and as the Philharmonic played HaTikvah, Jews all over the world began to celebrate. On May 15th, 1948, just eight hours after Israel was created, she was attacked by five Arab armies that had every intention of driving the Jews into the sea. Five months later, on October 28th, 1948, the flag of Israel was formally adopted by the State that survived the onslaught.

When I see the Israeli flag, I think of the long sweep of Jewish history. I think about the miracle of Jewish survival. I think about my love of our faith and my love for that land. I think about doing everything that I can to pass along Jewish values dor l’dor – from generation to generation, to my children and yours – and whatever I can do to ensure Israel’s survival. I think about the words of our prophets: we must care for the stranger, the poor, the widow and the orphan, and our caring must transcend religious boundaries, and bridge geographic divides and ethnic animus. The Shield of David gives me a sense of strength and balance. The two intersecting triangles deliver the message of unity. This is what I see when I look at the flag of Israel: the long, amazing history of our People, and also the dream of the realization of the Messianic era in our time, a time of peace – shalom – and wholeness – shalame – for everyone, in Israel and far beyond. The blue bars that frame the Shield of David are bridges, and the white background is the canvass on which our prayers and dreams are inscribed.

That I began by speaking about the Israeli flag should not surprise you. After all, we are in a synagogue. Yet since the halachah teaches that “the law of the state is the law” and our tradition implores us to “pray for the welfare of the government” {Pirkei Avote 3.2}, I now appropriately move from your right to your left – the direction in which Hebrew is written and read – and we arrive at our nation’s flag. Protocol demands that when the American flag is on a staff in a house of worship or an auditorium, it should be on the speaker’s right as he or she faces the congregation or audience. Any other flag should be placed to the speaker’s left, with the American flag in a bit more prominent position, and so it is placed forward of the Israeli flag. This is not happenstance: the American flag represents the nation to which we owe our allegiance. The flag hearkens back to the Declaration of Independence, and it represents the freedoms and rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and it Bills of Rights. It is an icon for our nation’s history, the spirit of patriotism and the symbol of militarism.

When the colors of the Great Seal of the United States were adopted in 1782, white was chosen to symbolize purity and innocence, red to symbolize valor, and blue to symbolize vigilance, perseverance and justice {Our Flag, U.S. House of Representatives}. Many interpret the color red to symbolize those in our military whose blood was spilled in the name of our country. While the flag is customarily flown year-round from most public buildings, we are more aware of it on Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day and Independence Day.

When the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, the flag most commonly flown was the Continental Colors. Its red and white stripes may have been based on George Washington’s family-coat-of-arms. Then, on June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution: “Resolved, that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, while in a blue field.” The flag has gone through 26 changes since it was first adopted: the 48-star version holds the record for longevity – 47 years – the longest time that the flag has remained unchanged. The addition of the 49th star, representing the admission of Alaska to statehood in January 1959, was followed by the 50th star representing Hawaii in August of that same year. The current 50-star flag will tie the record for longevity if it is still in use on July 4th, 2007. When the flag design changes, the change always takes place on July 4th, Independence Day, commemorating the founding of the nation.

The American flag that now graces our bimah has particular significance. Shortly before 8:00 a.m. on December 7th, 1941, Japanese aircraft from six carriers attacked the Pacific Fleet as it lay at anchor at Pearl Harbor and, in two overwhelming attack waves, devastated the Battle Line as well as air and land facilities. A few minutes after 8 o’clock, a bomb hit the side of turret of the USS Arizona 4 and glanced off into the deck below. Then at 8:06 a.m., another bomb hit between and to the starboard side of turrets 1 and 2: the explosion destroyed the forward part of the Arizona, caused by the detonation of the ammunition magazine located under deck. The Arizona sank at her berth: 1,177 of the 1,400 on board died, over half the casualties suffered by the entire fleet on the “date which will live in infamy.”

The remnants of Arizona remain at Pearl Harbor – her main battery turrets and guns were removed, and very little of the superstructure is above water – a memorial to the men lost that December morning, 1941. On March 7, 1950, Admiral Arthur Radford, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, instituted the raising of colors over her remains, and legislation during the administrations of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy designated the site as a national shrine on May 30, 1962. A memorial was built over the ship’s sunken remains, including a shrine room listing the names of the lost crewmembers on a marble wall.

On behalf of our congregation, I express gratitude to Chuck and Laurie Langman for having ‘gifted’ our synagogue with the flags that will forever grace our bimah, and for presenting us with this ‘Certificate of Flag Presentation to Congregation Kol Ami.’ It reads:

“In tribute to the American fighting men killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor, the national ensign flies continuously from a flagpole mounted to the battleship USS Arizona {BB39}. During the hours of darkness, the flag is illuminated.

The battleship, resting in 38 feet of water, is no longer in commission. It was stricken from the active list in 1942.

Special permission was granted by the Secretary of the Navy to fly the United States Flag over the ship in memory of the brave men killed during the attack on the morning of December 7, 1941.

The United States Flag accompanying this certificate was raised and lowered from this same flagpole on May 29, 2006 at 1717.”

Flags are symbols, replete with meaning. They remind and inspire, and the historic values they represent through documents attendant to their birth serve as reference points as to how far we have strayed from those formative principles and declarations, or stayed true to them. Tears have been shed over the flag and lives have been sacrificed in its name and honor. Post-9/11, many Americans have come to see it in a different, more tender light. I cherish it more now than ever before.

The presence of the flags of the United States of America and the State of Israel on our bimah does not suggest our desire to blur the critical distinction between Church and State. Jewish history has taught us about the need to keep Church and State separate, one of the main reasons that so many Jews emigrated to America and why we have flourished here. The presence of the flags speaks about the importance of symbols: our love for America – the land of our birth and, for some among us, acquired citizenship after leaving behind the shores of their native homes – and our support of Israel where the roots of our faith were planted.

The flags remind us about the blessing of freedom and the vigilance required to protect and sustain it within our borders and beyond.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin