Dependence and Independence
Next to April 15, when I have the annual privilege of furthering the financial fortunes of this great country of ours, the Fourth of July is my favorite national holiday. Independence Day, the day on which our Founding Fathers signed away their allegiance to Mother England and went off on their own merry way, is an uncommon day of celebration.
American Jews live in a great country, arguably the greatest man-made society in human history. For Jews, exiled, since the destruction of the Temple, for nearly two millennia, America has been an historical anomaly, a haven of hospitality for a people to whom persecution and pogroms were the normative way of life.
It is incumbent upon every American Jew, therefore, to reflect annually, on this great day, and appreciate what this great country has given us—Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: The right to build synagogues and schools, the ability to pray and study Torah unobstructed, the simple freedom to walk down the street wearing a yarmulka without any fear whatsoever.
Of course, I speak of today’s America. These freedoms were hard to come by in the America of yesteryear. Men of my father’s generation did not wear yarmulkas at work or in the street as many of my generation do. The world—even the American world—was not so kind to Jews. Firms would not hire us. Neighborhoods would not welcome us. As recently as seventy years ago, a radio personality named Father Coughlin, the Rush Limbaugh of his day, publicly preached for the expulsion of the Jews—and much of America agreed with him.
Granted, this sort of discrimination was not strictly anti-Semitism. It was across the board. "No Irish Need Apply" signs littered corporate America. And we certainly don’t need to revisit the terrible treatment of non-whites in our national history.
Nevertheless, even with all the obstacles, the American Dream persisted. Jews persisted. The sheer quantity of opportunities inherent in our country’s composition allowed our people to rise above discrimination and take advantage of American liberty. Our nation was able to live, work, study, and lay the groundwork for the demographic upsurge—numerically, religiously, influentially—that took place in the second half of the twentieth century.
But this upsurge had one negative side-effect. It got us thinking more like Americans and less like Jews. We began taking our liberty for granted. We began to speak the language of Freedom and Rights. Our tone became emboldened, even obstinate. We no longer feel lucky to live here. We no longer thank G-d every day for sparing us the horrors experienced by so many of our ancestors. We forget that we are dependent every day upon G-d’s good graces.
Instead, we feel entitled.
And this sense of entitlement causes us to forget who we are and the duties we are charged with. Last month, a certain rabbi won a lawsuit against a restaurant that made the grave, anti-Semitic gesture of refusing to serve him coffee in a paper cup. The restaurant insisted that he drink his coffee in a ceramic cup like everyone else. But the rabbi, who had studied Jewish law for many years and knew that drinking coffee in a non-kosher ceramic cup was a sin of the highest order, was petulant. Upon refusal, he held high the banner of discrimination—and its concomitant suffering and mental anguish—and called his attorney.
Were this man’s actions improper? Should he have been more forgiving? Even if the waitress was clearly discriminating against him, was hitting her employers with a severe fine unreasonable? Does the image of the victim’s smiling face in the morning newspaper seem smug?
As an American, one might answer No to all those questions. And rightly so—he certainly was well within his rights. One might argue that his actions were, in fact, noble, another cobblestone laid on the road to freedom, an act worthy of Rosa Parks.
But as a Jew, was his behavior correct?
Judaism preaches qualities that are often at loggerheads with the conventional American approach. Instead of freedom and rights, the Torah demands restraint, discipline, courtesy, compassion, and most important, fealty to G-d Above. As Jews, we need to be more concerned with Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying G-d’s Name, impressing people—Jews and Gentiles alike—with our ethics.
As independent as we may feel here, we can not forget that we are forever dependent on G-d to sustain us and the country in which we live. G-d has given us America to provide for us opportunities and freedoms. It is now up to us to utilize those opportunities and freedoms to become great Jews, to develop ourselves within the framework of Torah and mitzvos.
May G-d bless our great nation, and may G-d bless the United States of America.