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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


 

In 1897, during a meeting in Basel leading up to the First Zionist Congress, a discussion ensued regarding the Zionist flag. Theodore Herzl had previously proposed the year before (in his book Der Judenstaat) that it should be “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. For we shall march into the Promised Land carrying the badge of honor.” 

However, David Wolffsohn, the Second leader of Zionist Movement, stood up and instead suggested the following:

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 talit with which we wrap ourselves when we pray: that is our symbol. Let us take this Talit from its bag and unroll it before the eyes of Israel and the eyes of all nations.

He then ordered a blue and white flag with the Shield of David painted on it and flew it over Congress Hall, what we now know as the flag for the State of Israel (Jewish Virtual Library).

At the end of Parashat Shelach (Numbers 15:37-41), we read five very famous verses recited at least twice daily in the Shema. There we read of the commandment for men to have tzitzit on the corners of their garments, on every corner seven white strings with one blue techelet string. What is the purpose of these tzitzit strings and what is the purpose of the contrast in the lone techelet string?

Rashi (Numbers 15:39) tells us that by looking at them we are reminded to keep all of the mitzvot. In terms of techelet, the Gemara (Menachos 43b) tells us:

“תניא היה ר’ מאיר אומר מה נשתנה תכלת מכל מיני צבעונין מפני שהתכלת דומה לים וים דומה לרקיע ורקיע לכסא הכבוד”

It is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Meir would say: What is different about techelet from all other types of colors such that it was chosen for the mitzvah of ritual fringes? It is because techelet is similar in its color to the sea, and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky is similar to the Throne of Glory, as it is stated….. In other words, the techelet string is also there to remind us of G-d through visual association.

However, Rav Soloveitchik (Chumash Mesoras HaRav, p. 122-125) offers a different explanation, one that not only explains the mitzvah of tzitzit and techelet, but provides us with a lesson for life. 

The color white is an expression of clarity, crystal clear, or as the Hebrew saying goes – הדברים מלובנים – the things are whitened. White is also an allusion to purity, like the red string on Yom Kippur turning white. In the Gemara, the term for white is chivair/ חוור, which means clear.

Techelet is the opposite. Blue represents distance, the sky seems so far away, the sea so vast and endless, the Kisei HaKavod – G-d’s Throne of Glory – is completely out of this world. It is symbolic of those things in the world that don’t make sense, that we don’t understand, be it in science, philosophy or religion. 

Much of that which occurs in our lives is understandable, explainable, and tangible. That is the message conveyed by the white tzitzit strings. But there are some laws of nature, which are – חוקים unexplainable occurrences in our lives. That is the techelet. Rather than give up, admit defeat at not understanding, we view that techelet as an act of faith as the Torah says  – וראיתם אתו וזכרתם את כל מצוות ה’ ועשיתם אתם - …look at it and recall all the commandments of יהוה and observe them.

Rav Soloveitchik continues and applies this as well to our connection with the land of Israel and the destiny of the Jewish people. We do not know why Eretz Yisrael was selected as THE chosen land and why we were selected as THE chosen nation – the am segula – who has unexplainably survived for thousands of years, where other great nations have disappeared.

If we only viewed Jewish history through the white lenses, there is no logical reason to build a Jewish homeland surrounded by enemies. But due to our techelet perspective, due to our faith, we remain connected to this land promised to our forefathers.

Senator Herbert Humphrey once said to Menachem Begin, “Please speak the language we understand, and not in riddles, symbols or mysticism. Speak of politics and economics.” 

The rest of the world only sees things as white (on black), but we are able to see things in shades of techelet.

Perhaps this techelet perspective was also what Wolffsohn subconsciously alluded to in suggesting the Israeli flag be modeled after the blue and white of the tallit. A national flag is something every single Jewish family, each and every Jew around the world, can proudly raise, proudly wave and proudly carry on their heart.

Since October 7th, we have seen an enormous increase in anti-Israel/Semitic bias and rhetoric in protests, the news and social media. Clearly, x-amount of people around the world just hate Jews. But partly it’s because the world only sees things as white (and black). They cannot understand our techelet acceptance and faith for the chosen land, or our position as the chosen people. We must continue to demonstrate to the world our connection to Israel, that we believe it is the homeland of the Jewish people, faithfully displaying our modern day tzitzit, the blue and white Israeli flag, while ultimately being reminded –שהתכלת דומה לים וים דומה לרקיע ורקיע לכסא הכבוד – tekhelet is similar in its color to the sea, and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky is similar to the Throne of Glory  - which means that everything that happens is ultimately part of a Divine plan.