Sunday, July 5, 2015

For this Fourth of July

For this Fourth of July

We held a Star-Spangled Bannered Shabbat at Hollywood Temple Beth El, with a Shabbat Kiddush featuring that great American stand-by, the hot dog.

Our discussion revolved around the theme of American exceptionalism. 

Certainly, at the beginning of our history, we were seen as such by not only ourselves but by foreign observers. This was a nation different, not only because it was a democracy (there had been others before which had for the most part failed) but because it differed greatly from the commonly accepted concept of a  nation, an entity created by one king or emperor forcing other ethnic groups by conquest into his domain, or an entity composed of people of some common language, religion, blood and long standing history on a land.  

This would be a nation created out of a common set of laws, by the people, for the people, of the people.

For us, as Jews, this was an exceptional nation, as never before seen in history. President Washington himself defined it:  For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens. . . May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

It would take many years, tears  and bloodshed to enlarge this vision to  erase the shame of slavery and to include the descendants of the  African slaves as well as the  native American Indians. Germans, Irish, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Latin Americans, all seen in their day as aliens who would never be absorbed, became part and parcel of the fabric of this nation. It is a work in progress.

Here are some thoughts from famous poets on the nature of America as well as an excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Poems for 4th of July

A foreigner looks at us: Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749–1832) one of the greatest creative minds of German civilization:

(Amerika du hast es besser)
America, you are better off
Than our ancient continent.
You have no tumbledown castles
And no basalt deposits.
Your inner lives are not disturbed by
Useless memories and vain strife.
Use your time with confidence!
And if your children write poetry,
May a kindly fate guard them from writing
Stories of knights, robbers and ghosts.

A  century later and Europe would be torn apart in two world wars inspired by ancient myths of knights, robbers and ghosts.

A Nation’ Strength    Ralph Waldo Emerson

What makes a nation’s pillars high
And its foundations strong?
What makes it mighty to defy
The foes that round it throng?

It is not gold. Its kingdoms grand
Go down in battle shock;
Its shafts are laid on sinking sand,
Not on abiding rock.
Is it the sword? Ask the red dust
Of empires passed away;
The blood has turned their stones to rust,
Their glory to decay.

And is it pride? Ah, that bright crown
Has seemed to nations sweet;
But God has struck its luster down
In ashes at his feet.

Not gold but only men can make
A people great and strong;
Men who for truth and honor’s sake
Stand fast and suffer long.

Brave men who work while others sleep,
Who dare while others fly...
They build a nation’s pillars deep  
 And lift them to the sky.

Are we still a nation of brave innovators who dare?

I Hear America Singing     Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass 1867

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics—each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat—the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck;
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench—the hatter singing as he stands;
The wood-cutter’s song—the ploughboy’s, on his way in the morning, or at the noon intermission, or at sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother—or of the young wife at work—or of the girl sewing or washing—
Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else;
The day what belongs to the day—
At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.

Only a few years after the terrible and bloody Civil War tore this nation apart, Walt Whitman could dream of a nation varied and at singing each his or her own song. Can we still give voice to that hope and expectation?

Emma Lazarus   The New Colossus  1883

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

America was then a vast, empty land hungry for the energy of immigrants. Can we still absorb the masses? In what way?

Martin Luther King Jr. I Have a Dream  1963

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." . . .
I have a dream today! . . .
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."2
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
                Free at last! Free at last!
                Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

No need to say more than, “Amen.”

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