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Matot/Masei: The Jewish American Journey Continues

07/06/2021 07:52:28 PM


Rabbi Rudin

Is the American Jewish Journey different from the others?  During our history, we have lived in many climes, many countries.  In some we were welcomed and later persecuted and expelled.  In others, we lived in peace for millennia and gradually faded away into assimilation and loss of identity.  And in others... I don't have to say what happened because the memory still haunts us.

America was founded not on a cultural, ethnic or religious identity like most of the other countries of the world.  Instead, it was founded on an idea, an idea that Washington admirably, clearly and powerfully expressed to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island back in 1790:

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, 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 in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

In other words, we do not live here as wards of any ruler or at the indulgence of any other group, as we did for so long in Europe. There is no edict of toleration that awards us the right to live in the United States.  Each of us is here with the rights of citizenship, without any regard at all to the labels, identities or divisions that mark the human race beside that of American citizenship.  

In the past year, our country has begun a courageous process of facing long-embedded biases that even our founders -- even those who "owned" slaves - knew. That there were and are contradictions and injustices that clip the wings of this noble experiment in self-governance.  These shadows are difficult to confront, let alone exorcise.  For me, as an American Jew, I am still haunted by one shadow in particular: the shadow of American indifference and inaction during the Holocaust.  I am haunted also by what I have learned about the American Jewish response, and I seek to understand more.

These are not trivial issues.  Anti-Semitism, unfortunately, is not a fringe phenomenon here -- as it is not anywhere -- but as pervasive and as camouflaged as it ever was.  The legacy of the Holocaust and the American response is painful, even knowing that half a million of our fellow Americans died to rid the world of fascism.  There are no words to express the gratitude and pride we have as the country that freed much of Europe from the Nazi yoke.  

But why were the Jews of Europe abandoned and turned away from America's shores, from all shores?  Why was not a single bombing mission of the thousands of Allied strikes on the Nazis devoted to destroying the dreadful camps and the rail lines feeding them?  Why were the gates of "Palestine" -- the territory designated by the League of Nations as a Jewish national sanctuary -- closed by Great Britain, America's closest ally, at the moment when we needed shelter most?  These questions will burn and cut forever. 

But we know the soul of the United States.  We are part of that great soul.  We know that even now, with Jew hate increasing across the country from the morasses of social media to the very streets of New York, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Boston, the vision of the United States in the hearts of all who truly understand the founding documents and ideals is one of a society that draws its strength from its diversity, that celebrates and affirms the human spirit.  We have learned that, just as the people of Israel, our people, are on a journey from degradation and slavery in Egypt to the redemption of the world, this country that we have made our home for generations is also on a journey and we with it: a journey to greater equality, liberty, justice, opportunity and the empowerment of every person to be free to make their dreams come true for good and mutual welfare. 

This week's Torah portion, Matot/Masei , is the summation of the Jewish journey.  Wherever humanity yearns, struggles for justice, strives for hope, Jews are part of that journey.  The Jewish people, like America, are always in a process of becoming, evolving, growing stronger, more compassionate, wiser and dedicated to developing the spark of divinity that is in every human heart.  

That is why in our synagogue, the Israeli flag of our heritage flies next to our flag, the American flag of our country.  Because as Jews, we are called upon to be striving Americans and as Americans, we are called upon to use the resources of our heritage: the habits of thought, mind and spirit that we developed through all the years of struggle, not merely to find America, but to build America.  Happy Fourth of July. 

Thu, June 20 2024 14 Sivan 5784