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July Fourth and the Seventeenth of Tammuz A Warning from an Ancient People

07/05/2022 11:46:12 PM


Rabbi Moshe Rudin


Dedicated l’ilui haNeshama, the ascent of the soul of Jewish educator Jacki Sundheim z’’l, tragically lost in yesterday’s senseless act of violence.

Does Judaism have a July Fourth?   Not so much perhaps.  Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Israel Independence Day, is a great day, but it doesn’t quite ring with the strength and defiance of 1776.  The Declaration of Independence and the sheer audacity of the colonists’ revolutionary zeal make this day unique.  There probably isn’t another celebration like it anywhere in the world. 

What Judaism does offer at this season is the 17th of Tammuz, which falls later in July.  Rather than being a day of celebration and defiance it is a day of memorial of when the Babylonians broke through the walls of Jerusalem.  But the roots of that tragic event go back to the day that Moses, seeing the betrayal of Israel worshiping the Golden Calf, shattered the Tablets of the Covenant.  

It wasn’t only the Covenant with G-d that was betrayed: it was the Jewish people’s covenant with each other.  Worshiping the Calf, the god of our Egyptian masters, was affirming the lies of slavery: that we were not worthy of respect, let alone freedom.  Better to abandon the responsibility and uncertainty of freedom in the wilderness and to return to the security and certainties of slavery.

What a surprise it must have been.  We had been freed by G-d, taken on eagle’ wings to Sinai, seen the Egyptians utterly defeated and justice visited upon them.  And yet, the longing, not for freedom but for slavery, clings to us.  Every sin, says the Rabbi Tzadok of Lublin (17th century) that the Jewish people does hearkens back to the Golden Calf.   Over and over and over again, our ancestors on their way to the Promised Land of Israel grumble and complain that they want to go back to Egypt.  

After all, it is easy.  The path to freedom is hard and uphill- for Israel is the most elevated place on earth.  But the path down to slavery?  As easy as giving up, as shrugging and accepting what seems to be just the way things are.  

Every voice, every tendency, every platitude supports just going along with the downward flow. 

There’s just one voice that says no.  One voice that says go toward greater freedom, greater responsibility, greater action.  One voice that says not to give in to the slavery of cynicism, resignation, surrender.  But that one still, small Voice is more compelling than the cacophony of all the rest.  That is the Voice that we all heard at Sinai and that reverberates within each Jewish soul forever.

Our country and world are mired in interlocking crises.  They can all be responded to with anger, frustration, resignation and blame.  No question, that is the prevalent response across all of the Tower of Babel of human communication media.  That is the response of the 17th of Tammuz. 

Or, we can choose differently.   We can choose to believe that there is a way forward and orient our lives to moving forward through communication, engagement, refusal to give up or declare that another human being, and especially another Jew, is irredeemable or unreachable through dialogue.  

To the fifty six signatories, signing the Declaration of Independence was not just a risk, it was an act of faith.. “we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”  The signatories were from all over the colonies and all over the world.  The differences between them were vast.  But they somehow found common ground of fatih to stand together for freedom, unity and a dream that democracy and equality could finally win the day over tyranny and hierarchy.

The warning of the 17th of Tammuz reminds us that it is easy to lose that unity and faith and what awaits us if we do.

Did I say that there was no Jewish Fourth of July?  Maybe not, but there is this: Once every fifty years, on Yom Kippur, atop Mount Zion a Great Shofar would be sounded.  All slaves, even those who willingly chose servitude were freed.  All of those chained by debt and inequality were freed as unjust debts were canceled.  All land holdings reverted to the original families to whom they were allotted after the Exodus.  In the words of the Torah: Uk’ratem Dror Ba’Aretz L’chol Yosheveha- Proclaim Liberty throughout the land to all  the inhabitants thereof.  

These words were engraved on an old bell that pealed only once and then cracked under the challenge of liberty.  We keep it among the objects most sacred to this republic in Philadelphia.  Freedom, like Torah, the original declaration of independence from the false gods of slavery, is not in the voice of mobs or cannons but in the reasoned and respectful dialogue of free people.  We, the people who taught the world what freedom truly is, must set the example.  In the words of perhaps the greatest of all of the founders of this country, John Adams: Let us dare to read, think, speak and write. 

Shabbat Shalom


Thu, February 22 2024 13 Adar I 5784