Shiur Times, May 2008

A Star and Blue Stripes

By Menahem (Mel) Alexenberg

Theodore Herzl was at meeting in Basel searching for a design for the Zionist flag that would be the flag of the State of Israel a half-century later.  David Wolffsohn stood up and said "Why do we have to search? Here is our national flag." Upon which he displayed his talit prayer shawl proposing blue strips on a white field as the flag design.  A blue Star of David was added between the stripes.  What is the semiotic message of parallel blue stripes and a six-pointed star?

The blue color derives from the biblical injunction to dye one of the strands of the tzitzit fringes blue to remember to do all the mitzvot.  The blue stripes on the talit prayer shawl remind us of the blue strand that went into disuse during the Babylonian exile too far from the Mediterranean Sea to obtain the blue dye that was extracted from a sea snail.  The sages of the Talmud tell us, “The blue wool resembles the sea; the sea resembles the color of the sky.”  Blue symbolizes the sky reaching down to the sea, heaven lowered to sea level, transcendence realized in down-to-earth actions.

When we hold the Torah scroll up in synagogue for all to see, we chant “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” Parallel strips represent the multiple ways and paths.  The ingathering of millions of Jews from more than a hundred countries to create the State of Israel in our day after nearly 2000 years of exile seems a greater miracle than a far smaller number of Jews leaving only one country after 210 years in Egypt. 

Seeing men draped in their striped talit shawls gathered together in synagogue reminds me of zebras that I saw in Africa gathered together for protection.  When a zebra was about to give birth she separated herself from the herd so that her unique stripe pattern would be imprinted on the newborn’s mind.  If the newborn zebra were to first see the patterns on other zebras, it would be unable to identify its mother in the herd for nursing and would die of starvation.  Like a bar code that identifies a product, zebra stripes serve a biological survival function of imprinting the identity of a particular zebra as mother.  Jews who come together each morning donning a striped talit and seeing the tzitzit will never forget their identity.  The blue stripes on the flag of Israel can make Jews proud of their identity.

Like stripes, the six-pointed star points in multiple directions honoring the multiple ways and paths demanded by creative Torah study.  Dogma and single-point perspective has no place in Judaism.  Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes that the Jew “longs to create, to bring into being something new, something original.  The study of Torah, by definition, means gleaning new, creative insights from the Torah (hiddushei Torah).”  

The star on the flag is constructed from two intertwining triangles.  The triangle pointing upwards is counterbalanced by the triangle pointing down to symbolize drawing spirituality down into every aspect of everyday life.   The Lubavicher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson explains:  “It is not enough for the Jew to rest content with his own spiritual ascent, the elevation of his soul in closeness to G-d.  He must also strive to draw spirituality down into the world and into every part of his involvement with it – his work and his social life – until not only do they not distract him for his pursuit of G-d, but they become a full part of it.”

Menahem Alexenberg is Professor of Art and Jewish Thought at Emunah College in Jerusalem and author of The Future of Art in a Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press, 2006)