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Jun 29 2014

A Rabbi Reflects on the 4th of July

In the Gettysburg address, President Abraham Lincoln described the United States of America as “conceived in liberty.” The story of the Jewish people shares this common thread: our foundational epic is the exodus from Egypt, a celebration of freedom from tyranny. When we reflect on our own history as Jews- the ten plagues, the death and destruction, which preceded our escape from Egyptian slavery, and the forty years of wandering which were necessary in order to raise a generation who could live in freedom, we begin to understand the beauty and responsibility entailed in being free people. Current world events conspire to reinforce this message, as the battle to bring forth nations conceived in liberty continues to be waged. The thread connecting the American and Jewish dreams of freedom is emblazoned on that great American symbol, the Liberty Bell, inscribed with these stirring words from the Torah, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof.”

The 4th of July is a sacred occasion, and it is appropriate that we observe it by sharing sacred texts. Listen, now to the words of our Declaration of Independence, understanding the rights and responsibilities that come with being a free people-

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

The declaration goes on to list the abuses that led the colonists to secede from British authority. Our Declaration of Independence gives voice to the fundamental equality of all people, though, sadly, our early republic sanctioned slavery and denied rights to women. This notion of one law for the native and the stranger is also rooted in the Biblical text.

We who have been raised in freedom must never, ever take that freedom for granted. As American Jews, we owe a special debt of gratitude to the land of the free and the home of the brave, the place where, outside of our own homeland, we have enjoyed the greatest freedom of religious expression in Jewish history. We join with our fellow citizens on the 4th of July in paying tribute to the birth of freedom, mindful of the words of Simon Wiesenthal, who wrote that, “Freedom is not a gift from heaven, we must fight for it every day.”

Our democratic way of life carries with it an awesome sense of responsibility.

The Fourth of July is a celebration of the beginning, and any celebration of freedom inevitably evokes the recognition of the price we have paid and continue to pay for the blessings we enjoy. The United States of America has afforded the Jewish community greater opportunity for liberty and religious expression than any society in which we have lived throughout our beleaguered history. As American Jews, we owe a debt of gratitude to this country, and we acknowledge that debt here this evening with this small tribute.

On the 4th of July, I am always reminded of the following words- sometimes it takes the perspective of an outsider to give us an accurate reflection of ourselves- “Those who have lived in places where freedom is not a primary value, have a unique perspective on which we reflect on the Fourth of July- Freedom is not having to report to the military that you have a houseguest overnight. Freedom is studying what you are interested in at the university and not what the Education Board orders you to major in. Freedom is traveling anywhere you want without asking permission from four different government agencies. Freedom is not hearing that a friend has disappeared and is thought to be held by the police but no one knows for sure. Freedom is not being beaten for appearing in public without a male escort. “ These enslavements have scarred the body, the mind, the spirit; how blessed we are to live in a country which devotes itself to the struggle for freedom.

The book of Genesis describes the process by which Adam and Eve become fully human, even as they are expelled from paradise. The essence of that process is that most uniquely human of attributes, the ability to choose. While acknowledging that our country is deeply flawed, as are we all, it is appropriate to pause on this day and express our gratitude for the gift of living in a nation where we strive to respect the notion of individual freedom of expression. As we celebrate the Fourth of July, we can truly pray, in President Abraham Lincoln’s words, “That government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

 

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