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Reflections on the Fourth of July

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the battle at Gettysburgh, PA. In the Gettysburg address, President Abraham Lincoln described the United States of America as “conceived in liberty.” Birth is a bloody and painful process under the best of circumstances, and that conception doesn’t always go according to plan. What is true of individuals is true of nations, and we remind ourselves of this reality annually as we celebrate the conception and birth of our country.

We need only 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 to understand the beauty and responsibility entailed in being free people. Events in Egypt this week conspire to reinforce this message, as the battle to bring forth nations conceived in liberty continues to be waged.

The Fourth of July is a celebration of the beginning, Memorial Day is a remembrance of the cost, but 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 ought to acknowledge that debt on the important dates in the civic calendar.

“If you appreciate your freedom”, it has been said, “thank a soldier”. While we long for, pray for and work for a universal time of peace, envisioned as a messianic age, the sad reality is that in order to protect the freedom we enjoy, we must be ready to defend it, even at the cost of our lives. There is no one who prays for peace with greater fervor than the soldier who stands ready to pay this ultimate price.

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. Diana Sowards writes- “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.” 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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