Parashat Shemot: The Flag and the Song

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Portrait of a boy with the flag of Israel painted on his face.
27 Dec 2007

Parashat Shemot 5768

Read last year’s dvar torah – Parashat Shemot 5767

Parashat Shemot 5768

In your Torah experiences of yeshiva learning or rabbis’ speeches etc., did you ever come across the following ten names:

Shlomo ben Yosef, Dov Gruner, Mordechai Alkachi, Yechiel Drezner, Eliezer Kashani, Ya’akov Weiss, Avshalom Chabiv, Meir Nakari, Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani?


Then how about the following ten names:

Yishmael ben Elisha, R. Shimon ben Gamliel Hazaken (senior), R. Chanina ben Tradion, R. Akiva, R. Yehuda ben Bava, R. Chutzpiet Hameturgaman (the translator), R. Yeshovav Hasofer (the scribe), R. Chanina Sgan Hakohanim, R. Chanina ben Chachai, R. Yehuda ben Dama, and R. Elazar ben Shamua – Zichronam Li’veracha

A bit more familiar!

We will return to all these immortal Jewish giants of saintly memory.

Our parasha relates (Shemot 5:14):

ויכו שטרי בני ישראל אשר שמו עלהם נגשי פרעה לאמר מדוע לא כליתם חקכם ללבן כתמול שלשם גם תמול גם היום:

and rashi explains

The ‘shotrim’ were Jewish overseers of the Jewish slaves. The shotrim had compassion on their fellow Jews and did not forcefully coerce them to fill the irrational daily quota of bricks. And so at the end of each day, when the production did not fill the quota demanded by the Egyptians, the Egyptian task-masters would beat the Jewish overseers.

In return for their self sacrifice these “shotrim” were later chosen by HaShem to be the founding fathers of the first Sanhedrin.

Their reward in this world, however great, cannot in any way compare with their reward in Gan Eden, as the gemara (bava batra 10:b) states:

הרוגי מלכות – אין כל בריה יכולה לעמוד במחיצתן

Those who were murdered by governmental decree (of the Romans for being Jews) no one can enter their portals in the world to come

And Rashi explains that one example of this is the two Jewish brothers, Lulainus and Papus from the city of Ludkia (Lod) who were murdered by Turnus rufus (the Roman proconsul), when they voluntarily admitted falsely to murdering a Roman woman in order to remove blame from the entire Jewish community.

When a Jew comes forward to make the ultimate sacrifice for his fellow Jews, there is no greater act in the eyes of HaShem.

The ten rabbis mentioned above were the legendary “Ten Martyrs” who we recall on Yom Kippur and Tisha Be’av. Their memory and self sacrifice will never cease from our collective national memory for they became the founding fathers of Jewish martyrdom who are emulated by millions of our brothers and sisters until this very day.

But who were the ten men whose names appear above: Shlomo ben Yosef and his nine compatriots? Why did we never hear of them? What are they to us?

These ten tzadikim were the ten martyred freedom fighters, members of the Etzel and Lechi military organizations, who were hanged by the British in the waning days of the British Mandate over Eretz Yisrael. And they became the founding fathers of the Third Jewish Commonwealth established 60 years ago in Eretz Yisrael.

The ten martyred rabbis were the best our people had known in one single generation, and they died for the “crime” of keeping and teaching the Torah to our nation. The ten modern martyrs were not rabbis, but they had a virtue the rabbis did not have. The rabbis were captured by the Roman and murdered without having a choice in the matter; whereas, eight of the ten modern martyrs were put on trial and told that if they recognized the authority of the British military court their sentences would be commuted to life imprisonment. Each one, in his time, declared to the court that they did not recognize the authority of any gentile entity in Eretz Yisrael – and they were summarily executed in Acco and Yerushalayim.

(Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani were about to be hanged in Yerushalayim, but committed suicide by a hand grenade which was smuggled to them in order to preempt the British lust for the hanging of Jews.)

The first to be hanged, Shlomo ben Yosef, was captured by the British in April 1938 for attempting to avenge the murder of nine Jews a month before, on their return to the city of Tzefat from a wedding in Haifa. One of the murdered women was my aunt Tzipora, wife of my uncle Harav Mordechai Kahana, her elderly mother and two cousins HaShem Yinkom Damam.

The Jewish State has a flag and an anthem. The flag consists of two wide blue stripes on a white background. The inspiration behind the design is the striped tallit. (The Arabs claim that the two stripes represent the Euphrates river in the north and the Nile in the south which are the ultimate goals of the Jewish State – halevai-it should only be so.) Is the flag holy in a halachic sense? May one trample it when angry at some foolish or evil decision taken by our government? Should we be incensed when seeing Iranian or Arab mobs trampling on our flag?

The national anthem of Israel – Hatikva. Must we stand when it is sounded, perhaps like the “kedusha” when the chazan repeats the amida prayer? Did you know that the subject of the second stanza of Hatikva is the Bet Hamikdash? Should it be sung at our special occasions like a bar mitzva or wedding?

Foolish questions – you might say! Indeed not!

The halacha states that prior to burial we clean the body as one does to a newborn baby, to signify that the end of life in this world is the birth of this soul in the next world. But if there is blood on the body or on its clothing, it is buried as is (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Dai’a 364,4) because we do not “wash away” the life blood of a Jew.

The blood of these ten young men, and over 23,000 other soldiers and civilians of Eretz Yisrael covers the flag and is the background “music” of the anthem. One who does not feel the sanctity of the flag and the song which signify our “national” characteristic has fallen victim to the galut.

Now the gnawing, annoying question arises:

We are taught of the great personal sacrifice of the Jewish overseers in Egypt. We know the names of the ten great martyred rabbis of 2000 years ago, and even the two brothers of Lod are part of our tradition. So why are our rabbis and educators derelict in not informing us of the ten martyred tzadikim (righteous ones) in whose merit the brutish British were forced to eventually leave Eretz Yisrael and the Jewish State was established?

I suggest:

The Jewish people are the most unique conglomerate of peoples. We are a family, a race, a religion and a nation, all in one. However, during the 2000 year punishment of being exiled from our national home, we emphasized the intimate relationship of the individual aspect of “God and me” where personal survival and religious perfection overshadowed, nearly eradicating the national aspect of “God and us.”

The antagonism of many of our religious leaders towards Zionism’s call to return home to renew the “AM ECHAD” aspect of klal Yisrael indicates how much the galut has taken its toll of our national identity.

To acknowledge events of 3300 years ago in Egypt, or 2000 years ago under Roman occupation of Eretz Yisrael does not compel us with feelings of responsibility to aspire to anything higher than our mundane existence. Whereas, the great acts of miseerat nefesh (personal sacrifice) performed in OUR time for the sake of what is necessary for our Jewish national and religious survival, create conscience pangs which interfere with our pursuit of comfort and luxury. If ten young men voluntarily gave their lives in the creation of an independent Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael, how can I remain aloof and not join my brothers and sisters in the Holy Land?!

But thank G-d, the Jewish ability to improvise is ever present. Just ignore the ten martyred tzaddikim of Yerushalayim and Acco. Don’t inform your children, don’t tell your students, so now we can remain enraptured with the great traditions of mesirat nefesh of yesterday and not be troubled with the burdens of today’s national-religious demands.

O! How quickly we forget!

Shabbat Shalom, Nachman Kahana

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.