This weekend, when we read the first section of the Book of Numbers, is not only Shabbat but also Shavuot and Memorial Day as well. I want to share some history of the American Civil War of 150 years ago, when 620,000 men were killed, and attempt to make a connection to the weekly reading.
"Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground." After uttering these words, Sgt. William H. Carney turned over the regimental flag of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment to another soldier. He then collapsed from the four wounds he suffered during the failed Union attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina on July 18, 1863. Despite his injuries, he held the flag aloft in the heat of terrific fire and guarded it with his life, thus preventing its capture by the Confederates. For his actions that day he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the army's highest award.
What is most interesting about Sgt. Carney is that he was the first African American to be awarded this honor. The battle of Fort Wagner was also a watershed battle; it was the first time a regiment made up of entirely African Americans (other than its officers!) fought in battle as a cohesive unit. Despite overwhelming odds and a near-suicide mission, the Regiment fought with distinction and bravery, demonstrating that former slaves could be very effective in battle and in the new society which would be built after the war.
Why did Sgt. Carney risk his life to hold the flag? After all - it's just a piece of fabric on a pole. The flag holder in every regiment had a very dangerous job. By holding the flag a soldier presented a very obvious target for enemy snipers and infantry. Yet Sgt. Carney and many others like him on both sides of the Civil War faithfully carried their flags - many giving their lives for their actions.
Civil war battlefields were very precarious places. After the shooting began, blinding smoke and deafening noise permeated the field, making it nearly impossible for soldiers to see or hear their officers. In mere minutes a soldier could become completely disoriented and lose his bearings. The regimental flag, therefore, served as a marker so soldiers would not get lost. Additionally, couriers carrying messages and orders from headquarters to field officers could more quickly find the regimental commanders to deliver those orders.
The flags also served an even more important purpose by creating pride and increasing morale. They were considered to be the heart and soul of the regiment and represented the aspirations of the men and the cause they were fighting to uphold. Sgt. Carney wasn't simply guarding a piece of cloth. By holding the flag tall and strong he enabled his fellow soldiers to keep focused on their mission.
In this week's parasha we read:"Each man shall encamp according to his flag and division and the insignia of his father's house. B'nei Yisrael shall encamp at a distance around the Ohel Mo'ed." There is a midrash that states that the nations of the world learned the importance of making flags for the leaders and armies from this description of the Israelite camp. The midrash also states that each flag was "made in the color of the tribe's unique stone, embedded in the High Priest's breastplate". Each flag also carried an insignia representing the tribe's special characteristics.
Rashi's commentary explains that the flags enable each person to "recognize his section". But the flags, I believe, had a purpose beyond helping to delineate the physical location. Every tribe had a particular mission to do for the collective nation. By gazing at the insignia embroidered on the flag, tribal members would be cognizant of their strengths and their mission. When seeing the flag blowing majestically in the wind, they were inspired to fulfill their united mission with renewed fervor. With each of the twelve tribes surrounding the Tent of Meeting, with the Torah situated right in the center, the people were constantly reminded of God, of their national purpose, of their common good and the realization of the Torah's ideals.
It is important to use symbols to inspire and focus the community on our Jewish mission, on the commandments and ethics of Torah. The key lesson for me is that while we have individual and family allegiances, agency and synagogue affiliation, we should come together in common purpose for the common good. The Israelites in the wilderness, after their long and painful experience as slaves, needed to learn to value themselves and to value others. Our texts say that when we stood under the mountain in the Sinai desert and said "we will do and we will listen", we were one people, with one heart, am echad b'lev achad.
On this Memorial Day and Shavuot, let us proudly pledge that our flags, American and Israeli, will "never touch the ground."
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,