In this week's Torah portion — in stunning fashion — the classical meets the contemporary. Our biblical tradition not only informed, but helped to create a necessary "marketing tool" of modern statecraft, even as it created a symbol that still causes a welling-up of Jewish pride.
God grants Moses license to Sh'lach l'cha anashim: "Send forth men, if you please, to spy out the land of Canaan that I give to the Children of Israel."
This sounds like a military reconnaissance mission. It seems that Moses is sending forth the first human "drones" of the erstwhile State of Israel. Or is he? What was their real purpose?
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in an essay titled "The Singularity of the Land of Israel," claims that nowhere in our tradition are we taught that these men were to perform the function of spies. Their purpose was La tour et ha'aretz — "to tour the land" and become familiar with the terrain — in effect, to fall in love with it.
"Jewish destiny," he writes, "is linked to this land; we have no other. The union of the people Israel with the Land of Israel is comparable to a marriage. The crossing of the Jordan River involved more than geographic movement; it represented a marriage between the people and the land, a union of rocky hills and sandy trails with a people whose future destiny is to this day bound up with the state and welfare of the land."
The Talmud gives us an interesting law with regard to marriage: "One cannot betrothe before one sees the bride." This applied to land as well — before we could enter into an intimate relationship, we needed to see her.
This begs the question: How do we see the State of Israel and the Land of Israel today? Do we view her as the Jewish Disney Land, or the Jewish Holy Land? Do we view her as the Jewish state or a state for Jews?
I leave these queries to you. But there is one thing that we can't help affix our gaze upon without it producing a wellspring of loving feelings. It is the degel ha'medina — "the flag of the country," and it was not only informed by this week's narrative, but literally created through the narrative.
On Friday, Nov. 12, 1948, after much discussion, a circular was published declaring the adoption of the official flag of Israel.
With great precision we read: "Announcement of the Flag of Israel: The Flag — 220 centimeters in length, 160 centimeters in width. The Background — white and on it two strips of dark blue, each strip to be 25 centimeters wide spanning from one end of the flag to the other … ."
How did the modern state know that white and blue were supposed to be the official colors? Who taught them that white intermingled with blue was Jewishly authentic?
David Wolfson, the man that Theodor Herzl charged with coming up with the flag, writes of the difficulty he had in conceiving this essential symbol of statecraft.
But then, he wrote, "All of a sudden, the idea came into my head. We do have a national flag, and it is white and blue. It is the tallit, with which we wrap ourselves during prayer every day — the tallit is our symbol. Let's take her out of her bag, and unfurl her in front of the Jewish people and for the entire world to see."
Is it not interesting that our Torah reading this week begins with the first Jewish leaders entering the land with the intent of helping to forge a relationship and a state, so to speak, and concludes with the famous rendition of the tallit of white and blue?
Indeed, is it not interesting that the same verb, latour, is invoked in both? Our biblical tradition begs us to develop an intimate and loyal relationship with Israel, even as it beckons us to look at the flag of the state — our official colors — with feelings of rooted pride and sacred purpose.
If we do so, then we'd be justified in "unfurling her in front of the Jewish people" — and in front of "the entire world to see."
Rabbi David Gutterman is executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.