Tuesday, July 3, 2007

"...Our Lives, Our Fortunes, and Our Sacred Honor

In the summer of 2001, I spent the Glorious Fourth at the Aleph Summer Kallah. A Kallah is a period of Jewish study undertaken traditionally in the summer, after Shavuot.

The 4th of July was on a Thursday that year, and Thursday is a Torah reading day in the synagogue. We had morning services with Rabbi Arthur Waskow in the big tent that is part of Kallah.

I don't remember what Torah portion was read that day, but I will never forget the Haftarah (prophetic reading). Rabbi Waskow stood at the Bimah and chanted to the tune of Haftarah Trop:

"In Congress, July 4, 1776: When in the course of human events..."

He chanted the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. When I was growing up, it was the custom the read the Declaration out loud on the 4th at the park before the fireworks. But to place the Declaration in the canon of prophetic writings was not something that I had ever considered. And yet, Rabbi Waskow was right--it is a prophetic document in a very real sense. The reading sent shivers up my spine.

We discussed the Declaration rather than having a D'var Torah (sermon). I do not remember the particulars of the discussion, but the import was the idea that the Eternal Creator of the Universe delights in human freedom and self-determiniation. There were many important rabbis in the Jewish Renewal movement there that day, so I did not contribute until the end of the discussion.

I suggested that Rabbi Waskow chant also the end of the Declaration for it is a very powerful statement of commitment by the signers of the document. And Rabbi Waskow stood aside and called me for the honor of chanting these words:

"... And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."

I have always thought these words are the most powerful in the Declaration. To understand how powerful, we must remember that to sign this document was an act of treason in the eyes of King George. And this was no hollow statement. The penalty for treason is death.

It is easy for us today to forget, as we have our barbeques, and watch the fireworks, that the founders of our Republic did not know the outcome of the revolution that they began. When they got together to "hatch much treason," as Samuel Adams put it, they were taking a very real risk that it might not work out. When George Washington and the Continental Army were starving at Valley Forge, they faced the real possiblity that all could be lost in this desperate gamble, and that tyranny would prevail.

And yet they persisted in their revolution in support of an idea--the idea and ideal that all human beings are created equal and that a nation can be build on the foundation of liberty and self-determination.

Many of those who signed the Declaration did in fact gamble and lose their property; and some their very lives. And even more so, did the ordinary "Americans," who responded to the call of freedom and gave their lives in the monumental struggle to give birth to a nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all...are created equal," as Abe Lincoln so simply and eloquently put it 87 years later.

And I wonder, do we, their spiritual descendents, have that kind of dedication? Do we understand the meaning of staking "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor" for the ideal of liberty?

I believe that our nation, out of all the nations, has a unique heritage of liberty. We are a people founded not on blood, nor on soil, but on the strength of an idea. Anyone who is willing to pledge life, fortune and honor in the service of this idea is one of us--regardless of birth. Of all of the nations, we have a unique capacity for greatness. But it is up to us to reach for that greatness and pledge everything we are and everything we have, to make it happen. Regardless of the costs.

Our lives. Our fortunes. Our sacred honor.
When we pledge the first two, we create the third.

I am reminded of the poem that is on the Minuteman statue in Concord:

"By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

His flag to April's breeze unfurled.

Here once the embattled farmer stood,

And fired the shot heard 'round the world."

Will the echo if that shot continue to be heard? Do we understand what "sacred honor" means? Would we be willing to give our lives and our fortunes up to the cause of liberty?
Are we willing to demand this of our leaders?

These questions should be foremost on our minds and hearts this Glorious Fourth.


Amie said...

Wonderfully put.

Judy Aron said...

Great post and how interesting to read the Declaration in trope.. that gathering sounded like a very nice experience

on a related note:
Our cantor is a Yankees fanatic and the last time the Yankees were in the World Series and we had some service on a day they were playing he sang one of the usual prayers to the tune of "take me out to the ball game" .. it was very fun.

denise said...

I was reading about the Declaration of Independence as I do each year on the 4th, and had many of the same thoughts on liberty and sacred honor, among other things.

Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying of the document: "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

And they did hang together, unite, fight for a common goal, even at great risk. Do we have that in us today, as you asked, is a good question for all.

Once again, well said - as always! :)

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