July 5, 2013 ~ 27 Tamuz 5773
Rabbi Jen Gubitz
Freedom rained over Saratoga Springs; Liberty poured out on Albany; Justice sprinkled brightly upon Sturbridge; the Pursuit of Happiness burst colorfully over Worcester; Equality shone down on Boston... an explosion of long and hard fought rights gave proof thru the night that we have it good here in America. Even when our personal politics or religious preferences or life choices come into conflict with the broader populace or broader governance, we have it good here in America. And we Jews have it pretty good here in America, too.
Though our national anthem only emblazons one stanza into our minds, in this four verse poem written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key some 200 years ago, it is remarkable to look at the remaining verses and wonder about all the ways, about all the work, about all the wars that were fought in this land, just so we might enjoy a night of fireworks and savor a host of freedoms.
We can hear the melody in our minds as later stanzas of the poem wonder: “And where is that band who so vauntingly swore/That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion/A home and a country should leave us no more?/Their blood has wash'd out their foul footsteps' pollution./No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”
We can try to grasp understanding of all that went into our American freedom. As Jews, our understanding is anchored just a bit more in this week’s Torah portion, Matot-Masei, and in so many other parts of Torah as we read, yet again, of all of the ways, all of the work, all of the wars fought on the road to becoming a free and enduring Jewish people.
But as we look to the world around us, where “the havoc of war and battle’s confusion, where the gloom of the grave” hangs down upon so many, we notice, yet again, that we have it pretty good here in America.
Here in good ‘ol amurica: While it took some time, last week equality took a major step forward with the Supreme Court Decision regarding marriage equality. It was literally life changing equality. But in our celebration of such a milestone, we cannot forget that still here in our own little Boston, and throughout the US, inequalities of the social, economic, and racial prevail. And even more so, we cannot forget in our freedom, that around the world, in Egypt, Syria, parts of Africa, Asia, inequalities, lack of freedom and lack of justice is waged in the streets, right now, this very moment, as we pray.
While we waited some time for American freedom and American equality, it will take a lot more time for freedom and justice in those far off places. And while that freedom and justice, like ours, may be life changing, it will also be life threatening. Still today, the road to freedom is blocked “by the havoc of war and battle’s confusion,by the gloom of the grave” which hangs down upon so many.
How do we balance our own freedoms with the knowledge that our world is still not a land of the free? How can we sit in our adirondack chairs, eating hotdogs, drinking beer, watching fireworks as free people in America, as free Jews in America, when fires rage around the world? Is it enough to read the news and to empathize with the brokenness around the world?
While we all deserve vacation and joy and rest, it is far too easy - when you can enjoy the freedoms that we do - to forget we’re free.
And the Torah reminds over and over that we, too, were enslaved. It reminds us that we, too, journeyed to freedom and safety. And so I wonder if we read it over and over and over again, not because it is a beautiful story, and it is, but perhaps we read it over and over as a daily, weekly, yearly reminder, a daily, weekly, yearly agitation from our comfort because we know that when you have freedom like we do, it is so easy to forget that we’re free. And so we read at length, we study in depth over and over, of the journey to freedom and safety. Because if we don’t, we’ll simply forget just how good we have it in America.
And perhaps, too, there is Torah every time we celebrate July 4th or sing the national anthem at a sporting event, over and over and over again, just as we read Torah. For this anthem reminds us, agitates us during those many leisurely moments where we are so comfortable in our freedom, that we forget we’re free.
And in the anthem’s poetry, we see the parallel story of the Jewish people, the parallel story of the American people, and the parallel hope of all people around the world who enjoy, who seek, and who pray for freedom, who pray for the opportunity of ‘l’hiyot am chofshi’ - to be a free people in free lands. This Jewish expression of hope, it turns out, is quite universal.
When the Star Spangled Banner was adopted as our national anthem in 1923, I imagine some measure of comfort was taken in the theological statement of the final stanza.
Between their lov'd homes and the war's desolation;/Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the heav'n-rescued land/Praise the Pow'r that hath made and preserv'd us a nation!/Then conquer we must, when our cause is just,/And this be our motto: "In God is our trust”/And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave/O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
And to that Source in whom we freedom seekers place our trust, we pray:
M’kor chofesh ba-z’man cheruteinu
O Source of Freedom, in this moment of our freedom...
as You have blessed us,
we pray that You might bring your blessings of freedom and justice
over all the world.