I really enjoyed the following Dvar Torah that I read on Shabbat from Zomet’s Shabbat B’Shabbato. Pay particular attention to the story in the middle about the Holocaust survivor’s parochet.
Every Man Standing by his Banner – by Rabbi Mordechai Greenberg, Rosh Yeshiva, Kerem B’Yavne
“His banner expresses love to me” [Shir Hashirim 2:4]. “The Holy One, Blessed be He, declared: the idol worshippers have many different banners, but the only banner that I love is that of Yaacov, as is written, ‘Every man standing by his banner’ [Bamidbar 2:2].” [Tanchuma Bamidbar 10]. The Midrash continues, “This teaches us that the banners were objects of greatness and glory.” Rabeinu Bechayai writes, “‘Every man standing by his banner, with his symbols’ – this is a hint of the verse, ‘with all the yearning of your heart’ [Bamidbar 12:15], showing that the nation yearned for banners.” He then goes on to describe the detailed symbolism of the banners. (Yearning is “avat” and the “symbols” are “otot.”)
Some people show no respect for a flag. In a letter to Baron Hirsh, Herzl wrote: “You might well ask me, in a mocking way: What is a flag after all? Just a pole and a piece of cloth? No, my good sir, people follow a flag to the place where they want to go, even to the promised land. For a flag, people will live and die!”
In the year 5623 (1843), after the Polish people raised their national flag as a symbol of their revolution, the rabbi of Gur, the RIM, came into the Beit Midrash and declared that he is very afraid of heavenly criticism of the people of Yisrael. He said: the Polish people are giving up their lives for their freedom and to free their land from foreigners, but what about us? What do we do?
David Wolfson described the origin of the flag of Israel. He wrote that Herzl gave him the task of making preparations for the Zionist Congress. He hesitated about which flag to use to decorate the meeting. “And then, I suddenly had a thought – we already have a blue and white banner, the talit in which we wrap ourselves during prayer. The talit is our symbol. Let us take it out of its case and fly it in front of the eyes of Yisrael and in front of all the nations. I asked for a blue and white flag with a Star of David in the middle.”
Rabbi Yisrael Lau tells of a young rabbi who turned to Rabbi Ruderman, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ner-Yisrael. He said that his congregation refused to accept a gift from a Holocaust survivor of a parochet, a curtain for the holy ark, with a Star of David embroidered on it, because this is a symbol of the Zionist country. Rabbi Roderman was astonished to hear this: “That country rescued hundreds of thousands of homeless refugees whose entire world had been destroyed, gave them food and shelter. There are indeed things that should be fixed in the country – the people should repent, we must all repent, both those in the country and those outside. Leave the parochet as it is. Don’t remove the Star of David, and don’t hurt the feelings of this poor Jew.”
Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote something similar. “You ask me how I, as a Jewish Talmud expert, views the flag of the State of Israel, and if it has any halachic significance. In general, I do not think that flags and symbolic ceremonies have any significance… But let us not ignore a law in the Shulchan Aruch: If a Jew is killed by Gentiles he is buried in his clothing, so that his blood will be visible, and people will avenge it… The clothes of a Jew become holy to some degree when they are stained with holy blood, and this is certainly true of the blue and white flag, which is soaked in the blood of thousands of young Jews who fell in the defense of the land and the settlements. It has a spark of holiness which stems from dedication and self sacrifice. We are all obligated to honor the flag and to show respect for it.”