Recently, while attending synagogue in Israel, where I live, I was struck by the sheer number of symbols that greet a visitor. From the mezuzah on the door to the blazing eternal light next to the holy ark, it seems the entire structure is laden with tangible items that are designed to stir our souls or spark our imagination.
This, of course, is as it should be. If worship is to be fully experiential and absorbing, it must engage our senses no less than our minds and hearts.
And yet, oddly enough, I noticed that there is one highly evocative emblem that is glaringly absent from nearly all Israeli shuls. It is one that most certainly should be accorded a place of honor, and yet it is nowhere to be found in our synagogues: the blue-and-white flag of the Jewish state.
The flag is a symbol of patriotism and unity, of restored Jewish sovereignty and our profound commitment to a shared national destiny, regardless of our differences. Is there a site more fitting for it to stand than in our shuls?
The omission of the flag in Israeli synagogues is particularly strange given its central role in the life of our people, going all the way back to biblical times. According to Numbers 2:2, God instructed that “the Children of Israel shall encamp, each man by his banner according to the insignias of their father’s household.”
The midrash in Numbers Raba states that even the heavenly angels have flags, and that God assigned banners to the Jewish people as a sign of God’s love and affection for them. The tribes of Israel raised their flags as an assertion of identity and display of dignity.
Growing up in the United States, I remember well how the sanctuary of every synagogue was bedecked with two flags: one American and one Israeli, as a sign of fidelity and appreciation.
It was a simple, yet powerful, statement: At the heart of our communal life as Jews, which centers around the synagogue, we place the flag as a badge of pride and a mark of dedication.
OK, you might be thinking, that sounds nice. But for those of us who live in Israel, why should we put the flag on display in synagogues here? The answer is really quite simple: We should never underestimate the power of symbols to influence people and to strengthen their attachment to what those symbols represent.
One of the most pressing questions of our times is how to instill the next generation in Israel with a sense of patriotism and devotion to country, especially now, when the Zionist idea is under attack from all quarters. All around us in Israel we see how values such as civic pride and national self-esteem are in retreat. The best way to counter that trend is to reach for the symbols that unite us and inspire us, such as the flag.
Sure, prayers for the State of Israel and its soldiers are already being recited in synagogues around the country. But there is nothing as compelling as the visual component in motivating modern man.
Some might object that the flag is a secular creation, one that is unbecoming to stand inside the sanctuary where prayers are offered.
I could not possibly disagree more.
In the book “Nefesh Harav,” the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik infused the flag with religious significance,
noting that martyred soldiers had fought to raise the national banner over liberated territory. “And when that flag waves,” he is quoted as saying, “it arouses heaven’s mercy for the people of Israel.”
Indeed, we waited 2,000 years to raise the flag of an independent Jewish state, making it a defining insignia both of Jewish history and destiny. It symbolizes the divine miracle of our nation’s rebirth, and it brings Jews together from across the spectrum. Hence, there is no site more fitting for it to stand than in the place where we all come together, united before God.
So, my fellow Israelis, the next time you go to synagogue, tell your rabbi or community president that you want to see the blue-and-white proudly on display on a permanent basis. It should flutter atop the building, and adorn the inside.
We should place a flag in every shul in Israel, raising the country’s colors and, with it, our spirits.
Michael Freund served as deputy communications director in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. He is the founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), a Jerusalem-based agency that assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people.