Friday, January 26, 2024



Herzl's sketch of his proposal for the flag of the Zionist movement.

A country must have a flag. In 1896, Theodore Herzl wrote, “We have no flag, and we need one.” Herzl offered a somewhat pedestrian suggestion of “a white flag, with seven golden stars. The white field symbolizes our pure new life; the stars are the seven golden hours of our working day.” (However, Herzl carefully arranged the stars so that together, the seventh star is a Magen David.)

Flags have always played a role in statecraft. In the book of Numbers, flags organize the Jews as they travel through the desert; in later Jewish history, impromptu flags, often used on Simchat Torah, were symbols of Jewish solidarity. In the ancient world, flags, ensigns, and banners played a critical role in warfare, where they took on extraordinary importance; capturing the enemy’s flag was an act of heroic valor, and a humiliation for the opponent. The Romans treated their ensigns as an object of worship; Josephus writes that the Romans considered it “a terrible thing… and a great shame, if they were stolen away.” In modern times, flags are primarily a national symbol.

To Herzl, having a national flag was critical. He wrote, “If we desire to lead many men, we must raise a symbol above their heads.” To him, the flag was another way of transforming the humble Jewish masses into a nation. He would later write in his diary (June 1, 1901) that he hoped to be remembered by history as “an impecunious Jewish journalist, (who) amid the deepest degradation of the Jewish people and at a time of the most disgusting anti-Semitism, made a flag out of a rag and a people out of a decadent rabble, and was able to rally this people around such a flag.” The leader, and their flag, are what makes the people a people.

Herzl, along with his flag, lead the huddled masses to their promised land. However, what would ultimately become the flag of Israel represents a very different vision.

Four biblical commentators from medieval France mention flags in their commentaries on Parshat Beshalach, during a battle scene towards the end of the Parsha. The newly freed slaves are ruthlessly attacked in the desert by Amalek, who “surprised (the Jews) on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.” (Deuteronomy 25:18.) The Jews have to fight back.

What ensues during this is quite unusual. Joshua is sent to lead the Jews in battle; at the same time, the Torah tells us:

And Moses said to Joshua…Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand.… Moses, Aaron, and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. (Exodus 17:9-12)


With Moses’ hands held high, Joshua wins the war.

Every commentary grapples with the same question: What is Moses doing with his hands? The most obvious answer, offered by Rabbi Abraham Ben HaRambam and Shadal, is that Moses raises his hands in prayer and miraculously protects the Jewish soldiers.

Others find this explanation unsatisfying; if this was meant to be a time of miracles, why did Moses send the soldiers to begin with?

Four commentaries from Northern France, Bechor Shor, Rashbam, Hizzkuni, and Joseph Kara, offer a very different interpretation. Moses held his staff high (in his hands,) which functioned as a military flag. (It is fascinating that the commentaries offer three different vernacular words for flags: banniere, confanon, and pendon.) Holding the flag high strengthens the morale of the troops; Moses’ staff and his hands function like a flag.

These two explanations are polar opposites. One sees Moses’ hand-raising as the prerequisite for a miraculous intervention; the other sees Moses’ staff as playing a mundane role, a rudimentary flag that rallies the troops on the ground.

The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 3:8) offers a middle ground; the hands of Moses functioned as a spiritual flag. It says that when Moses held his hands aloft, “the Jewish people turned their eyes upward and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven; then they prevailed. But if not, they fell in battle.”

For the Mishnah, the result of the war is miraculous, but the miracle doesn’t belong to Moses; it belongs to the people. Moses' hands held aloft, metaphorically the first flag of the Jewish people, is not about the leader; it is about the people. It reminds the soldiers to focus on their divine connection and reflect on their mission.

The Mishnah offers a very different vision of what a flag is: it represents the shared values of the community. Its worth comes from what people project onto it and how people connect to it. Unlike Herzl, the Mishnah sees the value of the flag as depending on what people invest in it.

Herzl’s vision for a flag was rejected. Instead, a proposal by David Wolffsohn, a close associate of Herzl and his successor as President of the Zionist Organization, is accepted. Wolffsohn writes that at the first Zionist conference, the following inspiration came to him:

At the behest of our leader Herzl, I came to Basel to make preparations for the Zionist Congress. Among many other problems that occupied me then was one which contained something of the essence of the Jewish problem. What flag would we hang in the Congress Hall? Then an idea struck me. We have a flag — and it is blue and white. The talith (prayer shawl) with which we wrap ourselves when we pray: that is our symbol. Let us take this Talith from its bag and unroll it before the eyes of Israel and the eyes of all nations. So I ordered a blue and white flag with the Shield of David painted upon it. That is how the national flag, that flew over Congress Hall, came into being.

Wolffsohn creates a flag that reflects every man; and it also reflects the everyman, the Tallit worn on the backs of tailors and wagon drivers, the ordinary folk who understood Zionism well before the rest of the world did. It is not a top-down flag, one brought by the leader to transform a hopeless rabble; instead, it is a people’s flag, one that draws its meaning from the hopes and dreams of its followers.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik argues that the people’s attachment to the Israeli flag transforms it into a sacred object. In a Yiddish lecture given at a Mizrachi convention in the 1960s, Rabbi Soloveitchik remarked that he generally doesn’t understand the magical attraction of flags or other objects like it. However, the Israeli flag is different. The Shulchan Aruch says that a Jew who is murdered must be buried in the clothes he was wearing when he was killed. Soloveitchik says this law teaches us that clothing “acquires a certain sanctity when spattered with the blood of a martyr. How much more is this so of the blue and white flag, which has been immersed in the blood of thousands of young Jews who fell in battle defending the country and its population. The Israeli flag has a spark of sanctity that flows from devotion and self-sacrifice.”

The people’s flag carries more than the hearts and souls of a nation; it represents the sacrifices that so many young people have made to build the State of Israel.

Today, our young men and women have to go into battle; far too many will not come home again. It is grueling to continue to fight against a fanatical, bloodthirsty foe. The ongoing losses are too large to bear. As the war continues, we too, like Moses, find that our hands grow weary.

What continues to hold the flag high are the people, who are filled with dedication. In the end, Moses can no longer hold up the flag; his hands need to be held aloft by Aaron and Hur. This moment offers a critical lesson: flags don’t belong to leaders, not even Moses. They belong to the entire people.

Today in Israel, it is the ordinary Israeli, and only the ordinary Israeli, who has held the country together. Previously unknown heroes have rushed to the front lines, organized volunteers, and taken care of a country in crisis. These ordinary people have consecrated the flag with the sacrifices they have made, sacrifices too great to count.

Israel’s flag is their flag. And they are holding it up high, despite everything.

Friday, January 19, 2024



Passover, Arthur Szyk, 1948


By Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

Bitter herbs are a culinary misfit. One can fulfill the obligation to eat the bitter herbs (maror) at the Seder with many different sour and spicy vegetables, including horseradish, romaine lettuce, and chicory. But what is very strange about maror is that we eat these vegetables on their own at the Seder; as the Mah Nishtanah  exclaims, on any other night, no one would eat a bitter spoonful of horseradish straight up.

Maror was misunderstood from the very beginning. There is no clear indication in the Biblical text as to why it is included in the Seder. The Torah in Parashat Bo says the Passover sacrifice should be eaten “roasted in fire, with unleavened bread, and with bitter herbs….” While the Passover sacrifice has a direct connection to the night of the Exodus, and Matzah is connected to the haste in which the Jews left Egypt, the reader is left to imagine what purpose maror might have.


Several commentaries see maror as a way to enhance the meat of the Passover sacrifice. The Ohr HaChaim says that “it is the way of those who eat roasted meat to do so with something sharp, for this makes it tastier, and entices people to eat more.” Ibn Ezra and Ibn Kaspi offer similar interpretations. This perspective is found in the Talmud (Chullin 132b), as well. It asserts that certain offerings of meat must be eaten in “the manner of royalty”; and it explains that the manner of royalty is to eat meat “roasted and served with mustard.” 


This interpretation is closest to the simple reading of the text. The Torah wants the Passover sacrifice to represent the joy of freedom, and be eaten in a royal fashion; to do so requires that it be served with an appropriate condiment.


But the Mishnah and Passover Haggadah offer a very different perspective on maror; Rabban Gamliel says: “The reason for bitter herbs is because the Egyptians embittered our forefathers’ lives in Egypt…” Maror is interpreted as a symbol of slavery, not royalty.


David Henshke argues that Rabban Gamliel’s explanation reflects a shift that took place after the destruction of the Temple. There was no longer a Passover sacrifice; one needed a new rationale to include the bitter herbs at the Seder. Rabban Gamliel found a different symbolism in the maror, one that related to the actual suffering during slavery.


But this new understanding of maror seems strange. An evening of redemption should be filled with joy and sweetness. The point of Passover is to escape the horrors of slavery; to place bitterness at the center of the Seder plate seems to undermine Passover’s message.


Most often, answers given to this question embrace the positive side of bitterness; or to put it a bit more cynically, that “suffering is good for us.” Maror is a reminder that slavery has shaped the Jewish soul just as much as freedom.


Undoubtedly, suffering can improve us as people. Professors Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined the term “post-traumatic growth” after observing that many of their trauma patients had reinvented themselves in the aftermath of a major tragedy. They had grown in terms of their strength of character, relationships with others, perspective on life, appreciation for life, and spirituality. Their suffering had changed them for the better.


Even before post-traumatic growth was discovered by psychologists, it was evident to philosophers and theologians. Nietzsche wrote that “to those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities…,” because Nietzsche recognized that character is forged in the crucible of adversity. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the Hebrew word for a “test of suffering,” nisayon, is the same as the Hebrew word for “raising up,” nissa, because a test raises one up; the bitterness of suffering is itself the silver lining that carries other blessings.


The Sefat Emet makes a direct connection between this idea and maror. He says that “the bitterness of slavery was a preparation for redemption, and this (bitterness) remains with us during the times of redemption.” Maror reminds us that bitterness begets character, and is itself a gateway to redemption.


As I get older, I get more uncomfortable with these types of explanations. I don’t contest their truth. Yes, suffering can spur spiritual growth. And one who suffers will find the pursuit of meaning to be the best way to live with suffering; as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik wrote, “Judaism teaches us that the sufferer commits a grave sin if he allows his troubles to go to waste and remain without meaning or purpose.” Spiritual quests are how the soul copes with tragedy.


But what I find deeply disturbing are articles and sermons that use this difficult truth to romanticize suffering. They depict the personal growth achieved in the face of suffering as some sort of Hollywood ending that makes it all worthwhile. But it doesn’t.


The Talmud discusses an idea called “afflictions of love,” which claims that the righteous suffer unnecessarily in order to receive a greater reward in the future. After a discussion of the great reward involved, it tells real-life stories about suffering. In one, Rabbi Yochanan suffers from an illness. His colleague Rabbi Chanina visits, and asks: “Is your suffering dear to you?”; perhaps Rabbi Yochanan appreciated the spiritual glory of suffering, and wanted to continue with his afflictions. Rabbi Yochanan offered a terse response: “Neither the sufferings nor their reward.”


After a lengthy discussion of theory, the Talmud shares the real-life verdict on suffering: all the growth in the world is not worth the suffering.  Marror is always bitter, and may it stay far, far away from us, always.


So how else can one see Maror? The past few months have given me a new reflection on the passage of Rabban Gamliel. I now believe that maror reminds us that even when we can proudly sing “this year in Jerusalem,” there will still be maror on the Seder plate. Despite returning to our homeland and building a remarkable state, we cannot banish the bitter herbs. Life will always have a side portion of maror.


But the maror at the Seder is not there to sober us up and offer us cynical realism. Instead, it reminds us that maror is never the final chapter. Bitter herbs may be ever-present, but so is redemption. We simply have to get through this portion of maror and start over again. We have overcome, we can overcome, and we will overcome.


In the worst of times, Jews never gave up on redemption; and now that we have experienced a taste of redemption, we certainly cannot give up on redemption, no matter how bitter things are. 


This message was powerfully articulated in a heroic eulogy that a bereaved mother, Sarit Zussman, gave for her son, Ben, a fallen soldier. After speaking about her remarkable son and the profound love he shared with his family, she ended by speaking to the people of Israel:


"And now to you, to all of you, to all of us, to the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. As a storyteller, I tell you: that our story has a happy ending. We are going to win. We have no other choice. We are a people who want to live, unlike our enemies, lowly and miserable, cowards, Nazis and their accomplices, who sanctify death. We will live, and thrive, and build...Do you hear, people of Israel? World, do you hear? Do you hear, lowly enemies who desire death and evil? Am Yisrael Chai – the Jewish people live, forever and ever and for all eternity, standing tall and with our heads held high…”


These moving words remind us that the true lesson of maror is that we must hold on to hope, even when it seems impossible. The Seder ends with joy, despite the maror. No matter how difficult it gets, we must hold our heads high and proudly declare: Am Yisrael Chai!

Friday, January 12, 2024

We Must Never Forget Them


The Israelites' Cruel Bondage in Egypt, Illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible; illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648–1733) and others, and published by P. de Hondt in The Hague; image courtesy Bizzell Bible Collection

One could call this the Gettysburg Address of the Exodus. At the beginning of Parshat Vaera, God speaks to Moses and assures him that slavery is about to come to an end:


Therefore say to the children of Israel: ‘I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you as My people, and I will be your God. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and I will give it to you as a heritage... (Exodus 6:6-8.)


In just a few sentences, the Torah gives us an overview of the full process of redemption; not just an escape from slavery, but the creation of a new nation with a homeland of their own. The Talmud refers to the first four verbs in this section (bring out, rescue, redeem, and take) as the “four languages of redemption”; And to this day, the four cups of wine at Passover Seder are in celebration of these words.


The parsha begins with this speech, most probably in order to begin on a high point. But it also begins mid-conversation, which strips it of context. God’s words are actually a response to an angry challenge by Moses; after his initial petition to Pharaoh backfires, and causes even greater pain to the slaves, Moses turns to God and says: “Lord, why have you done such evil to this nation? Why is it that You have sent me?”


Moses’ words border on the sacrilegious. Indeed, several commentaries criticize Moses for this. Rashi says that God, in his response, subtly rebukes Moses for his complaint; one Midrash says Moses was later punished for challenging God, and not allowed to enter Israel.  


Yet the simple reading of God’s response is that He takes Moses' challenge seriously; that is why God offers such a thorough and detailed reply. Moses is speaking on behalf of those who are oppressed and downtrodden, and even if he speaks with chutzpah, he does so out of love for his Jewish brothers and sisters.


Another Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 5:22) amplifies Moses' complaint. Moses knows the Jews will eventually be rescued, but he cannot tolerate the delay. A future redemption, Moses says, will not “help the Jews who are now being thrown under the building.” This curious phrase refers to a shocking image found in rabbinic literature (Midrash Zuta Kohelet 7:7, Rashi Sanhedrin 111a) that in the Egyptian construction projects of Pithom and Raamses, Jews were used as bricks, and squeezed into the gaps of walls. A similar Midrash (2:24) asserts Pharaoh sought to heal himself of leprosy by bathing in the blood of 150 murdered Jewish children each morning and evening.


These midrashic images amplify the biblical text, which talks at length about Pharaoh's attempts to kill Jewish children. But they are not here just to vilify Pharaoh; they come to expose the inner workings of his regime.


Some acts of hatred are utilitarian; one feels threatened, and therefore needs to fight an enemy. But other times, hatred stands at the very foundation of a society. The historian Saul Friedlander coined the term “redemptive antisemitism,” to describe the Nazi hatred of Jews. The Nazis saw Jews as a virus that weakens and undermines humanity; the destruction of the Jews would bring goodness to the rest of the world.


These midrashim are articulating something similar. In one, the murder of Jewish children is seen as therapeutic, a way for Pharaoh to recover his health. In the other, dead Jews are the foundation of Egyptian development. For Pharaoh, killing is no longer the means of maintaining power, but the very purpose of power itself. Violence against Jews is the scaffolding that holds his regime together.


Unfortunately, these Midrashim are prescient, offering a clear description of Hamas. There are no limits to Hamas’ “100-year war.” It engaged in a premeditated mass murder in the most horrible, depraved fashion, all proudly recorded by terrorists on their body cameras. Even more shocking is Hamas’ overt contempt for the very people they claim to represent. Palestinians were Hamas’ first victims, as this autocratic regime has regularly murdered its opponents. Today, Palestinians are enduring great suffering because Hamas cynically uses civilians as human shields, and calculates the strategic value of their deaths. Hamas will have the Palestinians fight to the death in Gaza while many of its leaders sit comfortably in Doha.


Supporters of Israel are sometimes reluctant to speak about the tragedy of Palestinian civilians because it has been weaponized by Hamas and its enablers; as I write these words, the International Court of Justice is presiding over a South African claim that Israel has engaged in “genocide.” But even so, we must mourn for the deaths of those caught in the crossfire. Every human being is created in the image of God.


Hamas has built its regime with the blood of both Palestinians and Israelis. Its great construction project, the Gaza tunnels, is built for death, and by death. Hamas’ wanton violence may shock us; but the Midrash predicted this type of hatred hundreds of years ago.


Like Moses, we are anguished over the innocent babies who were massacred, and mourn for those who were brutally murdered. Israel has had to send its best and brightest out to take up the fight; and too many of them have fallen in battle. For all of these tragedies, we cry.


Every death is a profound loss; but the death of a young person is all the more painful because it is so unexpected. In the ordinary way of the world, children bury their parents, not the other way around. My father died in a car accident, predeceasing my grandfather by nearly 40 years. My grandfather was a jovial man, who always had a smile on his face; that is, except when he spoke about my father. Then the smile left his face; even decades later, the grief would quickly return. No suffering is greater than that of losing a child.


A Hebrew expression, which is first found in Isaiah (38:10), best describes a young death: nektaph b’mei chayav, “cut off in the middle of their days.” It emphasizes that a young death is actually a double tragedy; one loses not just the person, but also what the person could have been.


Each of these deaths are painful for our entire community. News reports out of Israel recount the entire biography of those who have died; the entire Jewish world repeats their names and their stories. And inevitably, we find that we are one or two degrees of separation from these tragedies.


Hamas sees our response as a weakness. Yahya Sinwar sees the Israeli concern for each hostage and each soldier to be a weakness; he considers his ability to write off the lives of thousands of Palestinians to be a strength. He ridicules Israel’s willingness to call a ceasefire in order to release a handful of hostages. Like Pharaoh, Sinwar is ready to build pyramids with the bodies of babies.


Sinwar is correct that brutality holds strategic value; ignoring the suffering of one’s own people means that one can fight on without any limitations. But it is morally untenable. Moses cried for the babies Pharaoh was murdering, and we must follow his example. Even if it seems foolish, we must advocate for each hostage, and cry for every soldier.


We must never forget them. And we must challenge God to remember them, and put an end to the suffering now.