The American Israelite
By Rabbi Gershon Avtzon, Director of Yeshivas Lubavitch Cincinnati
This month, July 2021, the United States of America will celebrate 245 years since the drafting of the famous Declaration of Independence. On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted on independence from Great-Britain and they wrote down their declaration. The historic document, primarily authored by Mr. Thomas Jefferson was dated July 4, 1776, and was actually signed on August 2, 1776. It is currently on display at The Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, located on the upper level of the National Archives museum.
It is interesting to note that while July 4th was always celebrated as a day of American Patriotism, it was not declared a paid federal holiday until 1941, eighty years ago. It is also fascinating that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (both were involved in the founding of America, as well as Presidents of the USA) passed away on July 4th 1826. One more interesting historical point that some locals might be unaware of: During WWII, the Declaration of Independence document was actually moved to Fort Knox in neighboring Louisville, Kentucky.
While the goal of the declaration was to declare their independence from England, they also declared that our true dependence is on G-d Almighty our creator. They were religious men and were deeply committed to freedom of religious practice and observance. This is evident is the now-famous words of the declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This idea, of recognizing that our existence and natural rights come from G-d Almighty, is actually the foundation of Judaism. The famed Jewish sage Maimonidies begins his magnum-opus with the following words: “The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a Primary Being who brought into being all existence. All the beings of the heavens, the earth, and what is between them came into existence only from the truth of His being”.
As Jews, we begin our day with a clear declaration of independence of man and eternal dependence on the Almighty. This is done by reciting the age-old “Modeh Ani” prayer: “I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.”
Declarations alone are not enough; we must be ready to live our lives based on the declarations that we say. Imagine what would be if the only thing our founding fathers did was sign the declaration of independence? We would still be individual colonies under the rule of Great Britain. It was the willingness of those men to fight for their rights and beliefs that gave us the United States of America.
In our lives, our Jewish declaration of independence is often tested. Our internal “Great-Britain” tells us that to succeed properly in this world, we must minimize our religious observance and hide our Jewish identity. Unfortunately, this mindset seems to be succeeding to keeping us away from our inner recognition that we are truly — and only — dependent on our creator. Consider this finding from the most recent PEW study:
“About one in ten Jewish Americans (twelve percent) say they attend religious services at least weekly in a synagogue, temple or less formal setting — such as a havurah or independent minyan — compared with about a quarter of U.S. adults who say they attend religious services weekly or more (twenty-seven percent). U.S. Jews are also less likely than the overall U.S. public to say religion is “very important” to them (twenty-one percent vs. forty-one percent). Slightly more than half of Jews say religion is “not too” or “not at all important” in their lives, compared with one-third of Americans overall who say the same. There are even bigger gaps when it comes to belief in God: Around a quarter of Jews (twenty-six percent) say they believe in God “as described in the Bible,” while fifty-six percent of all U.S. adults say this.”
It is abundantly clear, that the time has come to proudly declare our internal independence of this negative mindset and to begin living our lives based on the mindset that each Jew has been endowed by our creator with a special soul that is eternally connected with G-d Almighty. We must be ready to make a revolution in our lifestyle to show our commitment to our internal declaration. Whether that means taking some extra time to study Torah or to ensure that Shabbas and the holidays are celebrated in our homes, no sacrifice is too big to achieve the ultimate goal: Creating the United Jews of America for generations to come.