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Thoughts on the 248th Anniversary of U.S. Independence

Updated: 4 days ago

I hope you all had an enjoyable Fourth of July holiday.  This is one festival on the American calendar which truly provides an opportunity to focus on the values upon which this country was founded and to celebrate the unique experiment represented by our nation’s history.  I’m told that this was one secular holiday that even our very traditional Seminary Rector felt deserved recognition and on which he omitted the traditional prayers of supplication, the tachanun, as we do on other festive occasions that occur on weekdays.

 

Some people are already looking ahead two years to the semiquincentennial (yes, that’s the 250th) anniversary of American independence.  Personally, I was struck by the current year’s milestone once I did the calculations and realized it has been 248 years since the United Staes declared our independence from the British Empire.  In Jewish tradition, the number 248 has special significance.  In a roundabout way, our sages declared that there are 613 mitzvot, commandments, in the Torah.  Since we read in Deuteronomy, “Torah tzivah lanu Moshe,” Moses commanded us ‘Torah,’ a rather obvious statement, they felt that it called for a deeper interpretation.  The ancient rabbis read the word “torah,” not in its usual sense of a teaching, but as a number, taking its numerical value as 611. (Tav+vav+reish+hay = 400 + 6 +200 + 5 = 611.)  The first two commandments spoken at Sinai, I am the Lord your God and You shall have no other god besides me, we are told were given directly to the people by God, but the rest, 611, “torah,” were conveyed by Moses.  Of those 613 commandments, the rabbis tell us 365 are negative commandments, i.e. “thou shalt not…” and the remainder, 248, are positive commandments, things that we are actively called upon to observe and do.

 

On this 248th birthday of our country, it seems appropriate to emphasize the positive responsibilities that come with citizenship in this nation.  The number 248 may not precisely correlate with the number of our obligations as Americans but it may not even be accurate in terms of Jewish law either, though several differing lists exist.  It really serves more of a homiletical purpose.  If we are to observe the 365 negative commandments, one for each day of the year, we are also urged to keep the 248 positive commandments, a number the rabbis linked to the parts of one’s body, one for each part of our physical being.  Thus, every day, with every part of our being, we are to serve divine purposes.  We are urged to perform acts that positively impact upon our world.

 

I recall a talk given in my former congregation in Charleston, SC, by my Talmud professor, Rabbi Joel Roth, who visited us as a scholar-in-residence at the time.  One thing which he mentioned in his talk was that while in American society people are greatly concerned about their rights, in Judaism the emphasis is instead on our obligations. It is true that from the very beginning, in the Declaration of Independence, we proclaim that we and, indeed, all people (“all men”) are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  We also read in that same document a little further on of the right of the people to alter or abolish any government which “becomes destructive of these ends.”  Following the Revolutionary War and the eventual adoption of a Constitution a few years later, representing “We the people,” ten amendments were added and became known as the “Bill of Rights.”  These are basic principles of law about which we still argue, litigate, and which the courts reinterpret, particularly the first amendment and the second, in recent times.

 

Even with these lofty goals and impressive documents, our country has taken a great deal of time and spilled much blood before moving toward somewhat greater rights for many who were excluded from them in large measure from the beginning. We continue to see legislators though who try to expand some rights for themselves even as they restrict other rights from other people.  That’s where our responsibilities enter, as we recognize our need to remain vigilant and to fight to retain our cherished rights and to see that they are extended to all people in this land.  In an election year like this, in particular, we best celebrate our independence, our freedom and security, by reminding ourselves of our rights and keeping informed about efforts of various groups and individuals to limit them or abolish them, to exclude certain groups and provide only for people “like them.”.  As the 19th century Senator an cabinet officer Carl Shurz (among others) is quoted, “My country right or wrong, if right to be kept right and if wrong to be set right.” It is up to us to remain vigilant and to advocate for our rights and those of others and to see that our leaders and elected officials maintain those rights and values upon which our country was founded. When they fail in their duty, to work to restore our values and rights.

 

So, on this Independence Day, we wave our flags, view parades and fireworks displays, and enjoy our barbecues and picnics, but we also need remind ourselves how very important it is to work to uphold and defend the principles that we cherish. If we want to celebrate the semicinquintennrial in 2026,each of us needs to act to defend our freedom and to maintain our sacred values this year and every year.  The price of liberty we are reminded is eternal vigilance.  The wording and the origin of that quote is in dispute, but its message remains for all of us on this Independence Day and, God willing, for many more Independence Days to come.

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