Two weeks ago, I shared my thoughts with you about what I, as an immigrant to the US, felt inspired and responsible to learn about the experience of African Americans in the US in the context of the Juneteenth holiday.
As Independence Day approaches, I’m recalling driving across the George Washington Bridge on July 4th 2017, a few days after I moved to New York City from Canada. Now, I’ve never been ignorant of America. I grew up watching American TV, immersed in American culture, and, as I have shared, I was a keen student of American history. Nonetheless, as I drove under the absolutely massive American flag which hangs from the highest tiers of the bridge, I was moved, and also inspired, by the goodwill, sacrifice, and aspiration that flag has come to represent.
As a Jewish community, we can be proud that the Founders articulated their inspiration from ideas found in our ancient Jewish foundational texts – key elements such as liberty, personal responsibility, the establishment of an independent legal system, the responsibility of a society for its weakest members – and equally proud of the generations of Jewish Americans who acted on, developed, fought and died for those ideas.
What truly stands out for me, in the first sentence of the US constitution, is the acknowledgement that striving for a ‘more perfect union’ implicitly recognizes that our work in building and reaching and aspiring is not yet and may never be complete.
This acknowledgment reminds me of two texts that I want to share with you. The first is a passage from English author JRR Tolkien “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.” And the second is the famous passage from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 2:16 “He (Rabbi Tarfon) used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”
Both of these passages make it clear that we all have a responsibility to act to make the world a better place. We can’t escape that responsibility. We must embrace it. It is the substance of who we are as free people who have agency and can make choices. That, in a nutshell, is what I find so inspiring as an immigrant in this wonderful, imperfect, world-changing, incomplete, and utterly indispensable country on its Independence Day.