Influences

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“O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!”

~ the second stanza of America the Beautiful

We stood in silent formation in the synagogue yesterday morning, a chipmunk scurrying on the patio beside us, revealed by huge plate-glass windows. It was the end of the Sabbath service, and we had already recited the prayer for our country, the requisite double Amidah, read the Torah and the Haftorah, named a beautiful baby in a white tutu as she slept on her mother’s chest.

Appreciating the freedom to worship as we please, we stood reverently to sing America the Beautiful, too. We are Jews, and we are Americans. We recognize the freedoms we have by living here, even though one or two generations ago, it wasn’t so clear-cut.

Today, we are free enough to be Jews first and Americans second if we so choose. We are free enough to squabble over the “right” ways to observe our holidays, and the freedoms we demand to walk down city streets in our specific garb, entitled to be as we wish.

Oswiecim, Poland, - October 24, 2007: Dead Railway in Auschwitz - Birkenau Concentration Camp. Poland
Oswiecim, Poland, – October 24, 2007: Dead Railway in Auschwitz – Birkenau Concentration Camp. Poland

One of the most arresting and beautiful voices of the last century is extinguished today with the death of Elie Wiesel. A front-page obituary on today’s New York Times, Facebook shares and videos about his impact, comments from President Obama about the magnitude of such a soul reminding us of our innate humanity and our responsibility in this world.

Yesterday’s Torah portion focused on the punishment God gave to the Jews who gave a false report about the Land of Israel, and who didn’t have the patience to resist worshipping the Golden Calf when Moses was on the mountaintop for too long. Forty years of wandering. It wasn’t supposed to be like that.

But he wanted the generation of slave-minded Israelites to die off before the Jews could enter the Promised Land, bringing only the pristine awareness of a new generation into this fresh start. Open minds. Those who believed in the possibilities the Lord promised.

We have a hard time believing in possibilities, don’t we?

Look around – we see corruption and dissent, hatred and power-mongering. People stricken with the overwhelming stress of the modern world. A desire to compete with our neighbors, to have as much as or more than everyone else.

We are in a race to the death.

I’m not sure how we came to be this way, except to read yesterday’s Torah portion, I am pretty convinced that this upside-down-ness is not new. It’s been going on for thousands of years. And we have systems like religion to tell us how to live better, how to choose right from wrong.

This is a pretty heavy blog for a peaceful Sunday morning on the holiday weekend of my nation’s Independence.

Yesterday as synagogue services ended, my rabbi invited the congregation to sing all three stanzas of America the Beautiful. I didn’t even know there were three stanzas. “Stand if you’d like to,” he said, and we all did. We had to. Reverence for our nation and all that.

I was overcome with tears, struck by the fact of our freedom, of the possibilities in being born American.

Beautiful girl enjoying natureDo we see it, in all its glory? Do we fully inhabit the magnitude of what we have while we have it?

We are awed by the fireworks explosions in the night sky; we gather with those we love and those we like and welcome them to our celebrations. My family will watch the neighborhood parade tomorrow, as cars slowly roll down the street carrying the groups we join, and those who make our lives neat and orderly, and clap as they throw candy to our children.

When I see the red, white and blue strung along fences, I tear up. We have something special living here, and we don’t even know it.

Several years ago, I took my children for a three-day trip to Hamilton, Ontario that happened to coincide with Canada Day (July 1st). We visited the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum that day, and it was free to everyone who came. Most of the patrons wore red and white, maple-leaf-bearing shirts, revealing their Canadian pride.

Do you own patriotic clothing? Is it something that occurs to you? Or are we instead caught up in the frank chaos that swirls in our country this election year, and the freedom to criticize, judge and complain more than we recognize the immense freedoms and power we wield?

Freedom is no small gift. It is big and cumbersome, doesn’t fit in a box. It is stealth, snaking on its stomach until it wraps entirely around our consciousness. It is something yearned for and pleaded with until finally, it slips its hand in ours and walks along the same paths, silent and proud.

Yes, there is fear in freedom. We can’t know the outcome before we step through the door. I have no idea if everything is going to be alright. And neither do you.

Us Celebration - Usa Flag With FireworksWe have to embrace freedom because the alternative is just too awful to contemplate. We have to cherish what we have so that we keep having it, and not worry that what is to come will just be worse than what we have already known.

They say that all Jews stood at Sinai, witnesses to the giving of the Torah. If so, then in some way my soul left Egypt, too. On Passover, we are to imagine the ways in which we are enslaved today.

Any time I complain about my life, any time I whine and worry, any time I feel concern for the outcome, I am back in that intellectual desert, wandering without a glimpse of another horizon.

We must embrace freedom if we want to keep it. Happy July 4th. May you realize all that you wish for. May you cherish your innate independence. May you celebrate the beauty all around.

The full lyrics of “America the Beautiful”:

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

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