Parshat Bamidbar (5774)


Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

Nationalism: How do you feel about flag waving?

 A Mexican-American student (left) is bullied by nationalist students for carrying the American flag while showing support of immigrant rights. When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

A Mexican-American student (left) is bullied by Chicano nationalist students for carrying the American flag while showing support of immigrant’s rights. When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

What do flags mean to you? Are flags uniting symbols, or are they emblems of division? It is obvious to us all that most often, to the people who hoist them, flags embody a symbol of nationalism. How do you feel about that? Because, as for myself, I’m not so sure sometimes.

Even when not used in the context of the actual nation-state, people often utilize state flags for other nationalistic reasons, such as ethnic and cultural nationalism. Can you think of some examples where these symbols are used well, and examples of when they are used poorly?

It is not that I am against people showing pride in their homeland and culture, but I do not believe in using these symbols as weapons. Furthermore, I do not believe in utilizing them in a way which does not call attention to a diverse fabric in that flag. As I completely stand against ethnic nationalism.

This is a topic that comes to mind in relation to current events, and upon reading our parsha for this week. First, let’s take a look at the text here:

‘The children of Israel shall encamp with each person near the banner which has his paternal family’s insignia; a good way off shall they pitch round about the tent of meeting.”

אִישׁ עַל דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִנֶּגֶד סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ:

Ish al-diglo ve’otot leveit avotam yachanu benei Yisra’el mineged saviv le’ohel-mo’ed yachanu.

Deuteronomy 2:2

I don’t want to overwhelm us with commentery this week, but I want us to just quickly discuss the interesting points made by Rashi, the master commentary. But it’s essential we first connect to the discussion of the ages.

Rashi in his commentary makes sure we know what we are talking about, these otot – these signs, these symbols – he understands them to clearly mean flags. Notice how Rashi also describes these flags, pointing at their construction, he referred to them in Hebrew as mapa – meaning a tablecloth. This is what these “standards” were. Colored banners of cloth with symbols embroidered into them, hoisted on polls.

Rashi describes the background of the flags, saying that the color and hue of each was inspired after the color of their corresponding stone in the Breastplate of the High Priest. Thus each flag had distinctive colors, according to their distinct tribal identity. As each of these twelve stones were different, so too were each of the flags.

12 Shevatim Flags, MosaicThen Rashi gives us further details as to the appearance of the flags, and why they are called otot here – why they are to be understood as signs, and what the symbols mean. Rashi explains that each of the flags had a symbol placed on them. What type of symbol? Rashi says it was a symbol given to each tribe by Yaakov Avinu (באות שמסר להם יעקב), before his death in Egypt at the end of Genesis. (see Genesis chapters 49-50)

I was recently reminded of this lesson after a friend asked me to review some pictures of the historic Breed Street Shul, in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, California. Some have noticed that around the interior of the main sanctuary there are 12 symbols circling the entire sanctuary. Upon first glance, one cannot help but notice that most appear to be zodiac symbols, yet some figures do not seem to exactly fit this theme. This is not a unique depiction in this shul, it is actually quite common in classical synagogues as well.

Midrash based on this week’s Torah reading sheds some light on this subject. Our traditional folklore credits Avraham Avinu – Abraham our Father – as being among the first to assign symbolism to the zodiac. He, and Yakkov his grandson, are said to have correlated the symbols of the classical zodiac with the descriptions of these 12 tribal patriarchs given at their time of blessing. This is something that is reaffirmed as a long-held belief even in the classical age, as accounted by 2nd century Hellenistic writer Vettius Valens.

However, these signs are not all so obviously connected to the heavenly constellations they correspond to today. Instead the midrash explains them slightly different at times. For example, Zevulen is symbolized by a ship, Naftali an olive tree, Binyamin a wolf, etc. Each of these were to symbols useful to describe something about the nature of those tribes and what they were good at. As with Zevulen whose tribe is understood to have become great sea merchants, thus the ship.

And then at the center there was the flag of the Levites, whose ensign was a depiction of the multicolored breastplate which represented the 12 tribes of Israel. Their multifaceted emblem understood to be a symbolic representation of all the many colors of the Israelites.

Even today, in synagogues like the Breed Street, you will see depictions of the Twelve Tribes in the form of these traditional symbols which are only loosely related to the Zodiac. Instead what they really are present for, is to symbolize the balance and harmony of the tribes of Israel, each dwelling peaceably with their own clan as described here in this week’s parsha. (see diagram at the bottom)

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Inside the historic Breed Street Shul, Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, California. The symbols of the Twelve Tribes still remain. In fact, the round Star of David stained glass pieces are just place holders for 12 original pieces depicting the 12 Tribes of Israel. They are being kept in storage for safekeeping during the restoration. Please see more images and a correspondence chart below.

As described in Rashi’s commentary for this verse, Yehudah leads in the east, along with Issachar and Zevulen. The tribes are further laid out in orders of three. Three tribes in the east, three south, three west, three north. With the Levites then leaning towards the middle. This symbolizes each dwelling harmoniously in their camp, each tribe at peace with each other. The flags they originated from are a thing of the past, but their symbols remain enshrined in Jewish art and architecture.

Before we move on from addressing the actual text here, I would like us to take notice of one other important point that cannot be missed. We need to understand why these groups and tribes did not fall into isolation.

The answer is found in explaining why the tribes were matched with each other, three tribes placed at each side of the Israelite encampments. The tribes were purposely made to dwell with other tribes as part of a local community and unit. Sometimes the matches were clearly ideal, like Issachar and Zevulen – who according to Jewish tradition were historical partners in enterprise and learning (see “The Torah-Business Partnership” at Chabad.org). So at times we can see the tribes paired together according to their natural alliances.

Sure these groupings were often based on fraternal feelings, in the most literal sense. Example, the tribes born to mother Leah are all placed in the east and the south. Those tribes alloted inheritance through Yosef – including Ephraim and Menasheh – were encamped together, thus all the descendants of Rachel were placed in the west. As we can see, the tribes most often – but not always – were grouped to camp with those they were most related to.

But like all nations and communities, the people of Israel were not just a grouping of like people and families. No, they were a composite of naturally distinct people who were expected to come together as a unified people.

This is a good thought to have in mind as we consider the often sung words of the psalms, “Hineh mah tov umah naim, shevet achim gam yachad / Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)

Though the individual tribes of Israel had their own distinct characteristics and autonomous camps, they were still united as one people. They dwelt not just as brothers among themselves in completely isolated communities, but also as extended brothers in unity as one complete nation – one united people. They are thus named Am Yisrael – the nation, or literally, the people of Israel.

So now that we got all the smart stuff out of the way, what does this all mean? And how do we actually feel about this?

Let’s really think about this here, and vent some of the natural criticism that us Jews have for this text.

We see the tribes abiding by their flags. Camped and grouped according to paternal line – but also by maternal lineage in division, each person and family among their own clan. Sure we agree that they dwelt harmoniously, thus enabling them to not just encamp in their formations but also move forward in their desert migration as a cohesive unit. But nonetheless, for most of us modern people, today most have a problem with a description of people dwelling in such communities, that by todays standards are quite restrictive. We have a problem with the appearance of segregation.

And even more so, many people have a problem with the suggestion of the scriptures and midrashic tradition praising vexillophilia – which is just a long word for the love of collecting and studying flags. Yet our texts seemingly does. Indeed our texts call the tribes to fashion them, after their own identity. And then to dwell by them, encamped by tribe underneath them. This does not sit well with many, be they progressive or orthodox.

Actually it’s interesting that I bring up the Breed Street Shul, mostly because I recently had an argument with a lifelong friend of mine after he started bemoaning the presence of the American and Israeli flags in that complex, which is today being used as a cultural center. It should be noted that the Breed Street Shul was the first location in Los Angeles to hoist the flag of the newly recognized State of Israel, upon the UN recognition of the Jewish state. The connection to the Zionist cause historically runs deep in this community. I felt the symbols to be wholly appropriate and historically accurate, in face of objections.

I heard what he was saying though. The arguments he made were familiar ones which are quite common among many young Jewish people today. His arguments were slightly modified versions of anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism, mixed with his own theoretical sense of universalism – as opposed to restrictive nationalism.

Of course, our conversation came to an impasse when I could not condone the disparaging of the democratic tradition of America and the State of Israel. And more specifically when I would not trash the flag, nor be bullied into decrying the local custom of showing such symbols in public meeting halls and houses of worship.

But I’ll tell you the truth, the conversation set off a different journey of self-exploration on how I feel about flags and nationalism. Being challenged on this topic by someone I know very well, he appealed to my natural character to be opposed to nationalism. As I have always been a most aggressive opponents to ethnic nationalism and racism. Often finding myself verbally and physically opposing racial discrimination wrapped in a flag. He had a point that has been pricking in my side ever since.

Especially in the past few weeks. My own conflict on how I feel about nationalistic symbolism and their appropriateness was displayed in my feelings over recent communal celebrations in the area, such as Cinco de Mayo and the Israel Day Festival. On one had, I feel cynical regarding the celebrating Cinco de Mayo here in the USA. [It could be possible that my ill sentiments of Cinco de Mayo festivals are most derived from my childhood experiences, from before the city shut them down because of the violence at places like Lincoln Park, events which were often marred by the venting of racist nationalism of the worst nature.] Yet at the same time I do tend to feel somewhat welcoming to the recognition of Israeli Independence Day when it comes around. You would think as a Mexican-American I would feel the other way around. Or at least be consistent, and be completely opposed to the recognition of either celebration in diaspora.

I’ll admit, the inconstancy is something that has perplexed even myself. Even as I waved my little Israeli flag at the festival. I really thought about what it meant to me, and how it might also appear to outsiders who cannot internalize my love and support for the Jewish state. How can I seem to essentially promote Jewish nationalism? Does this not appear to compromise my core values which oppose exclusivity, racism and xenophobia?

I let my mind and heart wrestle with this, in hopes of coming to peace with this. Hopefully before the Fourth of July rolled around and I found myself struggling with this topic yet again. Before I unfurl the American flag and again begin to struggle with similar nationalistic sentiments and conflicts.

There is no way to avoid a certain truth about employing such symbolisms. When people begin to wave flags, most often they are making clear nationalistic statements. And nationalism seems to almost naturally have a tendency to result in chauvinism, which further leads to racism and xenophobia.

Nationalism, while it’s aims seem honorable in seeking to establishing people-hood and the building up of sound nation-states, it can also be a used as a very dangerous force. Nationalism can become a divisive and restrictive force. Often setting up barriers between regions and peoples. This is because nationalism is concerned with my people and my country – mine and not yours. Nationalism most often displays itself through regional struggles for resources, and even in senseless expansionism. And in senseless exclusion and persecution of others, simply for not being part of your tribe or people. Because your needs don’t really matter as much as mine, I can’t help you if I can’t help myself. That is how nationalism translates in the minds of many.

So how do I intellectually justify my own feelings of nationalism? How do I justify my own pride in and love for my country? Why not decry these structures all together?

I justify my support of the state in the same manner everyone else before me has, simply because that is the way things are. For now, this is the only way things can be. And like most citizens, I identify with the values and virtues of my country. I also accept the fact that at times nations must rise up to give life to their unique virtues. Nations and people seem naturally intended to rise to prominence to actualize a dream, and once accomplished they fade into the background. Disappearing into the larger fabric of history. That is how most of us understand the nature of nationalism.

Simply put, I support and identify with the western democratic tradition of American and the State of Israel because their vision and dream is still in the making. They are both young counties, who have yet to accomplish their goals before retiring themselves to the history books.

But even this intellectual justification does not completely set my mind at ease. Because I cannot deny the reality that nationalism can be a harmful force in any country or people.

On the walls of the public housing near the entrance of the parking lot, facing Lorena near the corner of Olympic Blvd. Estrada Courts.

On the walls of the public housing near the entrance of the parking lot, facing Lorena near the corner of Olympic Blvd. Estrada Courts.

And this is probably where I’m going to upset everyone, but I must be honest. My own life experience, especially in light of the history of my community, makes me leery of nationalism.

Its well-known that I’ve traditionally been known to be an aggressive opponent of white nationalists – a.k.a. “skinheads,” but more precisely “white power” Nazi punks. Living my life in the punk rock scene it has been something that I have always had pushed in my face, naturally I’ve resisted and fought against such forces in the scene. In light of this it seems logical why I would so strongly oppose such things as ethnic nationalism. Because it’s an obvious offense to minorities such as myself.

But my opposition towards nationalism actually comes from somewhere closer to home. It is formed from my observations of nationalism gone awry in my own community – in the Latino community of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles; with “brown power” neo-nationalism. This is how I can say any type of nationalism can go wrong, even among disadvantaged minorities. My distaste for nationalism comes from seeing its divisive employment in my own minority community – among Latinos.

This topic comes to mind again, as recently racial and nationalistic tensions are once again begun to surface within this predominately Latino community (demographically, the area is 98.9% Latino). Most recently in the firebombing of four pubic housing units occupied by African-American families. (for details, also see: “Ramona Gardens Firebombing has some black residents fleeing the area,” LA Times)

I’m also finding it hard to ignore the obvious racism and chauvinism that is also being shown even more increasingly in the way people discuss the topic of gentrification and urban-renewal, along with the “white people” and minorities this is expected to attract to our communities. In the face of a perceived threat, some Latino people are once again trying to rebuild 1970s style nationalist protest movements to show dominance in this area.

ChakaArtist

Here we are talking about tribal and national symbols. Let us reflected on the growing tensions in Boyle Heights, and really consider how intentionally divisive and racially charged ways art, murals and nationalist symbols have been utilized in the eastside. How they are purposely employed to intimidate others out other races and nationalties out of our vicinity. We really need to reflect on how and why we need to move beyond this racial extremism, exclusivity and cultural hegemony. Notice it didn’t take long for this most infamous of the local graffiti inspired artists to validate my claims and understanding of this rhetoric for all of us.

As people of other races move in to the area one can’t help notice the rush to cover everything with a Mexican flag, armed revolutionaries or the Virgin of Guadalupe increases. Joining outdated slogans like, “Viva la raza” (meaning, long live our race) and the like which still theme this area. This all sits really badly with me, and I’m not at all quiet about it.

I challenge people on this. How can we attempt at being an open community in Boyle Heights when we cover our public housing in those areas exclusively in nationalistic and racially charged Chicano art? And by constantly covering everything with a Mexican flag? It’s not that I’m opposed to our ethnic art and cultural symbols being expressed in public. But I ask my people to consider if we are not being foolish in hollowing throwbacks from the most radical points of the civil rights movement. Could it be that nationalistic excesses in this art is sending a message that all other races and nationalities are not welcome here? Would it not be better for us as we grow as a community to mature into more inclusive tones? Is it not time that our nationalistic sentiments finally retire themselves, as the greater society moves beyond the ethnic divisions?

I must begin to speak up, not just for my own community. But also out of concern and communal solidarity with the African-American communities who are being violently targeted and squeezed out of their historic neighborhoods in Los Angeles by nationalist Latino gangs. (see “Racial Hate Feeds a Gang War’s Senseless Killing” and “Attack on family in Compton latest incident in wave of anti-black violence”) On behalf of the concerned members of the Latino community, I challenge the embedding of nationalism into our communities, because it’s unwise and divisive.

This is especially relevant for our community here in Boyle Heights, just as much as it is in most other inner-city communities. In fact, the way our racial and ethnic problems is being played out on the eastside is being modeled elsewhere, as the gang lifestyle and themes export themselves from our neighborhoods to build syndicate gang franchises in the inner-cities across the country. Its essential we tackle this issue here, and now. (see “Ramona Gardens Overcomes Past,” for some background on local racist sentiments and those who are working to overcome it.)

I think it is also important for us Latinos to employ new symbols of pride, which are sensitive. As us Latino quickly become the majority by sheer demographic growth in this country many among us are talking about what the future of the country will look like in generations to come. But we need to do some really good thinking. We need to decide if we are going to embrace people-hood with the other tribes of this country, or if we are going pursue cultural chauvinism and dominion.

This is what is running through my mind as I read these words in the Torah portion for this week, “The children of Israel shall encamp with each person near the banner which has his paternal family’s insignia.” (Deut. 2:3)

When we read about this topic of each tribe camping under their flags and tribal symbols in the Torah, I don’t see it as just majestic and lovely. On paper it looks nice. But I can also see where in the practical world, this can all go very wrong. When the use of flags and symbols is used to divide and distinguish, and not just as a mere symbol of pride. But can we tell the difference? I think that’s the problem, that sometimes people cannot.

Yes, I have a problem with the way some people in my community brandish the Mexican flag. Furthermore, I don’t just passively accept people reviving talk of a Mexican-American claim to the southwest and the expectation of social entitlement. This is the view which is most often paired with Mexican neo-nationalism. Along with a message for outsiders to stay out because this is ours, we should not have to share resources. This is the message being sent by many who aggressively embed the Mexican flag in our area. For me, this is wholly inappropriate, I just cannot do it. I cannot promote this type chauvinism in my community. From this, I feel I must have to abstain.

So how do I find it possible to raise other kinds of flags? Is this not hypocritical of me?

One of the reasons I can hold the American flag high is because I am an American. It is right for me to show my love for my own country, and in my own land. I see no problem with nationalism when properly expressed within the context of that nation. And because I stand proud in my identity as an American, which is not defined by any one color. We are all immigrant people, a nation of mixed heritage. A patchwork of cultures is sewn into the fabric of this nation. This flag does not just represent a sole nation built through the pooling of people of the same culture regionally, but of the gathering of people of many different traditions and origins to become a more perfect union. It is a country build upon the coming together of many people who value liberty, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

Likewise I can also proudly hold high the flag of the State of Israel. Because that flag is a symbol of the national aspirations of the Jewish people, who are not one color or specific race either. It is the flag of a state which is a refuge and home to Jews of many origins and ethnic backgrounds. It is the historic homeland and the modern refuge for many Jews, established through democratic and political realities. I can support and defend the fineness of that vision. I can show solidarity with this civilization grounded both in faith and culture; all of which is above color, race and national origins. A country which also promises full civil rights to all the various non-Jewish minorities – the people of the historic Arab, Muslim, Christian, Armenian, Druze communities – who also take shelter in her.

In their own merit, I feel both the flags of the United State of American and the State of Israel are two symbols, which when used in their proper spirit and place, can be used as symbols of inclusivity and diversity. I sincerely believe that these symbols still speak of national hopes which are above race and ethnicity. If only people would aspire to fulfill those values embodied therein.

Discussion: When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

Pictures of art from the Breed Street Shul, with correspondence chart:

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The_Breed_Street_Shul_in_Boyle_Heights,_Los_Angeles

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breed-street-shul-in-boyle-heights

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The following chart is an original creation, for a study I made on Jewish mysticism relating to the tribes and months. This at displays the corresponding meditative thoughts and sequences, taught by Lurianic Kabbalah. It also lays out the exact order for the different signs displayed on the walls of the shul:

This chart is an original creation, designed for a study I once did many years ago on Jewish mysticism – relating to the traditional meditations (kavannot) upon the tribes and months. This displays the corresponding meditative thoughts and sequences, taught by Lurianic Kabbalah (mysticism as explained by the Ari z”l). It conveniently lays out the exact order for the different symbols displayed on the walls of the shul, and the meditative elements which relate to them.

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