One hundred and fifty years after the conclusion of the Civil War, the South Carolina Senate voted Monday to remove the Confederate flag from the Capitol grounds. Decades after the heyday of the American civil rights movement made tremendous strides toward equality in our society, it took the terrible murder of nine innocent people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston to awaken the hearts and minds of the American public to the presence of this longstanding symbol of injustice. Yet there are still those who are reluctant to let go of the flag. For them, it seems, old habits die hard.
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In Jewish history, we too have had moments where our refusal to let go of old habits has prevented us from being our greatest selves and living by our values. The Torah tells us in Genesis 31 that when Jacob’s family snuck away in the middle of the night from Laban’s house, his wife Rachel stole her father’s teraphim, small idols, to take on the journey. When Laban confronted Jacob about the theft, the zealously monotheistic Jacob was so certain that no one in his camp had taken them that he condemned to death anyone who has the idols. Rachel’s tragic death during childbirth in Chapter 35 is seen as a fulfillment of Jacob’s curse.
Rachel’s passing leaves us deeply troubled. Why would anyone, especially Rachel our matriarch, engage in idol worship when she knew it was against the values of her family?
For years, people in the south who embrace the Confederate flag have tried to depict it as an innocuous symbol of Southern pride when, in reality, it has always been a divisive symbol that stands directly affront to the American values of tolerance and equality. I myself remember sensing this tension firsthand while attending a fourth of July laser lights show at Stone Mountain, Georgia, on a youth group trip. Known as the “Confederate Mount Rushmore,” and a previously infamous locale for Klu Klux Klan rallies, Stone Mountain (today, a national park) was singled out for mention in Martin Luther King's “I Have a Dream Speech” as a place in need of freedom. I remember feeling sad irony, while celebrating our independence at that site, that the greatest applause during the entire show came from the appearance of the Confederate flag, a symbol under which an army tried to deny so many people the independence we were celebrating.
Sadly, the massacre in Charleston, which was partially motivated by the murderer Dylann Roof’s love of Confederate values, has reminded us that the Confederate flag represents a part of our national history rooted in treason, insurrection and racism. It is inescapable today to ignore the fact that like idolatry in Rachel's time, refusing to let go of this symbol has now also not been without consequence.
During Bein Hametzarim (the "Between the Straights” period, which lasts from the Jewish holidays of the 17th of Tammuz to Tisha B’av), which began Saturday, we recall how our inability as Jews to let go of old habits has historically damaged our soul. Thousands of years after Rachel’s mistake, archaeological digs in Israel, including the Old City of Jerusalem, revealed teraphim, similar household gods that were kept in people’s homes in ancient Israel. Just as the teraphim led to Rachel’s death, the prophets indicated that idolatry was one of the root causes of the destruction of the Temple – a spiritual death for the Jewish people. The calendar coincidence this year in which the Fourth of July fell on the first day of Bein Hametzarim calls our attention all the more so to the damage that clinging to this flag does to the American soul.
Given her pivotal place in Jacob’s family, we can imagine that had Rachel let go of the past, by leaving the teraphim behind, and instead embraced her future, the fate of the Jewish people could have been entirely different: Under the guidance of a Jewish mother, Joseph may have never been sold into slavery and we may never become slaves in Egypt. Likewise, if those in the south who proudly fly the Confederate flag could also move forward, instead of clinging to this symbol of southern confederacy, then we could also make great strides toward healing the divisions in our country after the attack in Charleston.
Our country offers the best hope for fighting injustice and inequality in the free world. Continuing to wave a flag that is antithetical to whom we are undermines our effort to lead the world in promoting tolerance and equality. Only when we let go of this symbol can we really move forward in being our greatest selves and living by our values.
Dan Dorsch is the Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey, and is a board member of MERCAZ USA, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement. You can follow him on Twitter @danieldorsch.