As Blue as the Sky

The image of the Ukrainian flag with its brilliant colors sprang to mind as I read this week's Torah portion, Parashat Pekudei. In the descriptions of the furnishings of the mishkan and the clothing of the High Priest, there are many colors mentioned, but amid the gold and purple and crimson, one stands out as the most dominant: a shade of blue known in Hebrew as t'chelet. For example, in Exodus 39:22, we read: "וַיַּ֛עַשׂ אֶת־מְעִ֥יל הָאֵפֹ֖ד מַעֲשֵׂ֣ה אֹרֵ֑ג כְּלִ֖יל תְּכֵֽלֶת׃," "The robe for the ephod was made of woven work, entirely blue."

I'll admit that before a couple weeks ago, I wouldn't have been able to identify the Ukrainian flag. But now, its blue and yellow stripes are unmistakable and ubiquitous.

The image of the Ukrainian flag with its brilliant colors sprang to mind as I read this week's Torah portion, Parashat Pekudei. In the descriptions of the furnishings of the mishkan and the clothing of the High Priest, there are many colors mentioned, but amid the gold and purple and crimson, one stands out as the most dominant: a shade of blue known in Hebrew as t'chelet. For example, in Exodus 39:22, we read: "וַיַּ֛עַשׂ אֶת־מְעִ֥יל הָאֵפֹ֖ד מַעֲשֵׂ֣ה אֹרֵ֑ג כְּלִ֖יל תְּכֵֽלֶת׃," "The robe for the ephod was made of woven work, entirely blue."

I was curious, so I looked up the origins of the Ukrainian flag. I learned that the golden yellow stripe represents fields of wheat and the blue stripe signifies the wide blueskies of Ukraine.

National colours of Ukraine - Wikipedia


This sounded not terribly dissimilar from a piece of Gemara I remember learning about t'chelet. The Talmud (in Sotah 17a) considers the meaning of the tzitzit, the fringes on the corners of rectangular Jewish garments that once were dyed with the same bluedye as the High Priest's robe. It asks:

"But what is the meaning of the thread of blue? As Rabbi Meir would say: What is different about sky-blue from all other colors? Sky-blue is similar to the sea, and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky is similar to the Throne of Glory, as it is stated: “And they saw the God of Israel; and there was under God's feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness” (Exodus 24:10). As it is written: “the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone” (Ezekiel 1:26)."

In other words, the Talmud explains the connection between the brilliant blueof t'chelet and a whole chain of signifiers: the sea, the sky, God's throne and the heavens themselves. Making a ritual item blue, therefore, serves as a tangible reminder of that which is ever-present, transcendent and holy.  

This week, the Ukrainian flag has certainly functioned in that way. Its bright blue and yellow stripes have shown up in protests and appeared in editorial cartoons; its colors have been displayed behind profile pics on social media, and they have lit up night skiesall over the world. Everywhere, the colors evoke emotion, and a sense of connectedness to the larger causes of democracy, human dignity, self-determination and freedom.

Last week, I shared in Kavana's Facebook groups a post by my friend Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Yehuda wrote of using "three technologies that our people have developed over time to respond to the anxiety of powerlessness and as tools for the retrieval of our agency": tzedakah, prayer, and study.

This week, as the brutal invasion of Ukraine continues, we can see the human toll this crisis is taking, for both the people of Ukraine and also for the people of Russia. While none of us alone has the power to stop the awful events that are unfolding right now, we can do something, employing these tools of our tradition. As Yehuda writes, "They are not nothing... they have carried us throughout history, they bind us to each other, and they give us dignity to help a little bit now and to imagine a better later."

As for Tzedakah, there are many wonderful groups working to ease the suffering of Ukrainians, at home and around the world as refugees stream out of the country. Before Shabbat this week, I invite you to make a donation to the organization of your choice -- whether that be a Jewish organization like the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) which has an established presence on the ground that, HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) which will be resettling refugees, IsraAid which is already providing aid to the thousands of Ukrainians seeking refuge in Moldova, or a general organization like UNICEF. Better yet, don't just donate; share what you're doing with friends and family, or with the Kavana community through our Facebook page, and invite others to join you in contributing to the repair.

As for prayer, I invite you to join Kavana's spiritual leader Kohenet Traci Marx for Kabbalat Shabbat services this Friday night, and also to tune into musical leader Chava Mirel's Singing Circle next Tuesday evening. Both of these experiences promise to be deep, soul-filled (virtual) spaces where we can share our anguish and locate hope together.

And finally, when it comes to using study to re-center us on our values, I invite you to learn something new this week. There are so many amazing podcasts and presentations about Ukraine, both general and specifically addressing the many Jewish angles pertaining to its history and the current situation. If you find something great, again, please share it with the Kavana community through our Facebook pages. As for me, I'm reflecting on what this week's Torah portion has to offer, about how we surround and gird ourselves with tangible items -- whether flags or robes -- that help center us on who we are and what we're doing here.

The blue color of both the High Priest's garments and the Ukrainian flag draw our attention up to the sky's great expanses, drawing our gaze upwards so we can consider our connection with the Divine. When we do so, we can't help but think about the dignity of each and every human being and the indomitable human spirit that yearns to soar free.

Lastly, as we enter the second month of Adar today and tomorrow, I'm thinking of one more significant mention of the brilliant blue color of t'chelet. This one can be found in a verse from near the end of Megillat Esther, in chapter 8, verse 15, which reads:

וּמָרְדֳּכַ֞י יָצָ֣א ׀ מִלִּפְנֵ֣י הַמֶּ֗לֶךְ בִּלְב֤וּשׁ מַלְכוּת֙ תְּכֵ֣לֶת וָח֔וּר וַעֲטֶ֤רֶת זָהָב֙ גְּדוֹלָ֔ה וְתַכְרִ֥יךְ בּ֖וּץ וְאַרְגָּמָ֑ן וְהָעִ֣יר שׁוּשָׁ֔ן צָהֲלָ֖ה וְשָׂמֵֽחָה׃
And Mordecai went forth from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue and white, and with a great crown of gold, and with a rob of fine linen and purple; and the city of Shushan shouted and was glad.

Just as Mordecai emerged victorious from his ordeal, so too may the Ukrainian people and all of us emerge under banners of blue... towards freedom, human dignity, and hope.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum