Inherit the Flag

By Renee Kestenbaum
On May 20, 2012

 

"Parents, get your cameras ready," announced the ranger over the top of an outstretched American flag and the heads of the two dozen young citizens who held it aloft. Any Boy or Girl Scouts present were about to earn their citizenship badges, he said, for helping to fold the flag.

It was closing time at Fort McHenry, the Baltimore site of the British bombardment that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star Spangled Banner" during the War of 1812. In later incarnations, the fort was used to train troops, to imprison Confederate soldiers, and as a hospital. It became a national park in 1933, and on a bright, cloudy day in April, was the site of my family's Chol Hamoed outing.

We enjoyed the introductory video in the visitor's center, picnicking on the grounds, and posing in front of historical cannons. We eventually meandered to where the historical 15-starred flag is lowered ceremonially at the park's close each day, just in time for the demonstration.

My cousins gingerly held the bits of the flag that they were closest to, watching the ranger with slack-jawed reverence. I couldn't tell how much of the demonstration they understood, but they waited for their turn to do their parts, excited for their important roles.

Looking over the dark heads of my little cousins, I was strongly stuck by the irony. None of the three had been born in the United States, the girl in Canada and the two boys in Israel. They had lived in Israel for the past five years. Their parents are strong Zionists. Watching them hold the massive flag with reverence, I wondered at their relationship with America, with the flag, and I wondered, too, if they might someday fold and handle the Israeli flag with such respect.

The respect with which the American flag is treated is established in the guidelines of the "Flag Code," Title 4 of the United States Code. The code, which derives from old national customs and was codified in 1923, sets out when, where, and how the flag should be publicly displayed; for example, the flag may only be displayed between sunrise and sunset, and so when Fort McHenry prepared to close for the day the flag had to be lowered.

Above all, the guidelines reinforce a respect that an American citizen must demonstrate toward the flag. This respect is often demonstrated through the superior visual placement of the American flag above anything else on public display. For example, 4 U.S.C § 7 states, "When flags of States, cities, or localities, or pennants of societies are flown on the same halyard with the flag of the United States, the latter should always be at the peak" and, similarly, "No person shall display the flag of the United Nations or any other national or international flag equal, above, or in a position of superior prominence or honor to or in place of the flag of the United States..." 4 U.S.C § 7. The flag is treated like a precious object of high stature. In a way, it is elevated because it is a symbol of the United States as a nation, a government, a military, and an idea - it is everything, everyone, and all-inclusive.

The park ranger explained 4 U.S.C § 8, that the reason the children were holding the flag is because "the flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise," and then went on to explain and demonstrate how to fold the flag.

I tried to capture my cousins' faces on video, myself stunned. The proper way to fold a flag? The piece of fabric, dyed certain colors in a certain patterns, gets treated with more pomp and respect than many people. I had never before seen such a simple object treated with such respect and, moreover orderly, prescribed respect.

Oh, wait. Yes, I had. The directives to keep the flag off the ground, and to "destroy [it] in a dignified way...[when] it is no longer a fitting emblem for display" 4 U.S.C § 8 reminded me of the way we treat Torah scrolls. It well-known that dropping a Torah scroll on the ground requires 40 days of fasting to make up for. A Torah scroll is never casually discarded, but "destroyed with dignity" - given a burial - just like the American flag.

The United States Flag Code states that flag must be destroyed when it is "no longer a fitting emblem for display." A Torah is destroyed when it is pasul, no longer fit to be read from.In this, we see that the Torah's purpose is to be read, to teach, to inspire.

But the Torah, though sometimes an emblem or a symbol, is not a flag. Compared to the American flag, the Israeli flag has far fewer prescriptions than does the American flag. Israel's rules of the flag are much shorter, and much less detailed. They discuss the respect to be shown upon seeing the flag and hearing the national anthem, but little about how the physical flag is to be treated, how it is to be folded and which direction it should face and how it should be discarded.

One of the more interesting passages that stands out in the United States Flag Code, is the following: "The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery" 4 U.S.C § 8. This is interesting both as an example of meticulous thoughtfulness with which the Code was drafted (why would anyone think of specifying that no one may use a flag as bedding?) and because it contrasts so strongly with the way we often treat the Israeli flag.

The Israeli flag often gets used as apparel: any time a dancing circle gets started and someone runs through the center with an Israeli flag knotted around their shoulders. Check out the pictures from the Yom Ha'atzmaut chagigah, you'll see this several times.

Obviously we don't desecrate the Israeli flag, but treating it with moderate respect - natural but not forced and delineated to the nth degree, keeps the flag and all it represents (Israel and Zionism, among others) a part of our life's experience. Like the Torah, whose purpose is to be read and to inspire.

My cousins love Fort McHenry. They've helped to lower and fold the flag many times. Yet, throughout handling and caring for the American flag, the symbol of the United States, Israel is still their home.


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