Presentation of Colors

“A flag, what is that?” rhetorically asks Theodore Herzl in a letter to a philanthropist following their unproductive meeting. “A stick with a rag on it?  No, sir, a flag is more than that.  For a flag men will live and die…Believe me, the policy of an entire people – particularly when it is scattered all over the earth – can be carried out only with imponderables that float in thin air.”

The flags that fly this Memorial Day weekend invited a fresh appreciation for loyalty and sacrifice.  Herzl appreciated how a flag stirs the spirit of a nation.  Yet even as people yearn to rally around loyalties larger than themselves, some causes can turn very dark.  Larger projects are not inherently noble.  Suicide bombers often believe in the righteousness of their cause – hard as this is to fathom.  Selfless conduct is not always commendable conduct.

How can we tell whether a cause conveys virtue?  By its yield.  If it generates excessive pride, indifference to suffering, unawareness of the dangers of evil, then it builds its own indefensible case.  But when a larger cause serves to unite what lies in strife, when it helps people feel more connected, protected, and respected, then its nourishing harvest testifies for itself.

This week our sacred texts offer an interesting contrast between vanity and virtue.  The third of the Ten Commandments which we received at the beginning of the week on Shavuot prohibits taking God’s name in vain.  “Thou shall not take – lo tissa – the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Ex. 20:6).  Although its not clear whether this precept applies to swearing or to swerving off course, it clearly addresses religious misuses and abuses.   In this Shabbat’s portion of Torah, the third and final part of the Priestly Blessing begins with the Hebrew word yissa (the opposite of lo tissa) expressing the prayer that God’s presence may face us and grant us wholeness. “Thus will My name be linked with the Israelites and I will bless them” (Num. 6:26-27). Herein lies the juxtaposition between disfiguring God’s name and basking in the countenance of God’s blessed gaze.

As we gaze upon the flag to which we pledge allegiance, may the works we perform in God’s name help to bestow the blessings of liberty and justice for all.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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