I must confess my ignorance. I never knew that a Confederate flag flew over the capitol building of South Carolina until the governor this week asked for it to be permanently removed. Having never been to South Carolina or visited its central government buildings, I couldn't believe that a state would permit such a thing when it has long been a symbol of white supremacy and a not-so subtle nod to a return to pre-Civil War segregation and slavery. I heard multiple comparisons to the flying of a Nazi flag after losing World War II but this comparison, though natural, seems somewhat fatuous and narrow. Symbols must always be contextualized and loose comparisons lead to sloppy thinking.
Perhaps we focused so much on the Confederate flag this week because the much larger conversations on racism, serial killings and the easy accessibility of guns in this country are not resulting in enough change. The tragic shootings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church stirred a lot of bad feelings about the Confederate flag and what it symbolizes to those who see it as an image of oppression and those who see in it an image of sentimental Southern patriotism. But the flag literally masks the more painful subjects that need banner attention right now.
In ancient Israelite history, when we marched through the wilderness on the way to our homeland, we were instructed to encamp in an orderly fashion: surrounding the Tabernacle, each person by tribe, each tribe in a particular location, each division with its own flag. The instructions above are reiterated only a few verses later: "The Israelites shall camp each with his flag, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of the Meeting at a distance" (2:2).
The flags they were instructed to display had to represent in some way, their ancestral homes, much the way that we might imagine a family crest would be replete with letters and symbols that represent a family's business and personal interests, geographic location and religion. A modern scholar associates the word for flag in Hebrew - a degel - with the Akkadian dagalu which mean "to look" or a variation of it which means "sight." To serve its purpose correctly, a flag had to be visible. Without visibility, the flag was useless. In the ancient Near East, military units of a sizable number would group together with their families as an economic and legal unit that needed to be represented symbolically.
A midrash on Numbers 2:7 posits that every tribe had a flag that corresponded in color to the stone it represented on the colorful breastplate of the High Priest, the kohen gadol. With this color alignment, you knew where you were located spiritually and physically in relation to a larger community. Flags are important ways that we demarcate space and stamp individuality on a location that may remain neutral without any mark. Noteworthy is that the first man on the moon placed a flag as if to suggest triumph and ownership of a space formerly uncharted.
We have flags of our towns, of our universities, of our states, of countries. A flag can be a highly moving symbol of belonging. Think of Francis Scott Key in 1814 seeing the stars and stripes of a flag that still waved high despite war that inspired him to write the American national anthem. Think of Israeli Olympic award medalists who wrapped themselves in Israeli flags as if to be totally embraced by a national symbol. Or consider the somber moments when the coffin of an American or Israeli soldier is laid to rest covered in a flag. The Veterans Association of America will provide a burial flag free of charge to honor the memory of a veteran that is then given to the next of kin.
The history of the flag of Israel is itself fascinating. While the government settled on a rather striking and plain image that carries with it religious symbols like the Star of David and recalls the stripes of the tallit, a prayer shawl, the contest to design the flag suggested signs and colors associated with the number of work hours in a socialist day. Who we are or who we aspire to be often comes out in the flags we design.
Roman Mars did a fascinating TED talk on why we never notice city flags and how to design better flags, in case you were thinking of crafting something as a family. If you have an extra 20 minutes this week, listen and learn from an expert who has given this much thought.
It's not a bad idea to spend time this Shabbat thinking of what your family flag might look like or if you are part of a group like a workplace, school or camp, what symbols would mean the most to you that need to be included as a mark of identity in the small space that a flag takes up. One thing is clear: ancient Israelite flags were there to provide direction through high visibility to those who required shelter. They were never a source of offense or anguish. They accomplished the exact opposite - telling you where you belong rather than telling others where they do not belong.