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As a young child, I always loved the 4th of July. Fireworks, meat on the grill, picnics, and everyone always seemed so appreciative of being an “American”. As I got a little older, and I learned about the Founding Fathers and the Declaration of Independence; I enjoyed hearing the stories about George Washington, John Adams, and especially Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. These men held their principles and beliefs so highly that they were willing to risk everything in the quest to become truly free. As a rabbi, I resonated to their values as a Jew; appreciating their need to pursue justice, their passion to act righteously on the behalf of others, and their desire to make their world a better place. It has almost seemed to me as if the Founders of this nation were actually influenced by Judaism.
Not surprisingly, and upon investigation, we find that they were. Our Founding Fathers (and Mothers) deeply and consciously resonated with Judaism on many levels. The Torah and Talmud both teach us “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof” (“Justice, Justice shall you pursue” Deut. 16:20 and Sanhedrin 32b). A Jewish concept, this became the spiritual foundation of the United States. As Jews, we are not to just “complain” when we see injustice… we are to do all that we can to rectify it. The Founding Fathers of this country realized the importance of this teaching, and for the first time in modern history, chose to fight against injustice by declaring their own nation based on ethical values. Like Jews throughout the centuries, they decided to embrace the concept that there are “unalienable rights” (the original document uses “unalienable” as opposed to “inalienable”) and that “all men are created equal”. No Rabbi in their homily could have worded it better.
What many people do not realize is how important Jewish history and values actually were to the members of the Continental Congress. Of the five men who wrote the initial draft of the Declaration of Independence, three were additionally selected to create a Great Seal for the United States. On July 4, 1776, the day that independence was declared; John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson were asked to design this Seal, and here, as much as anywhere else, we see the “Jewish influence” on our country.
Both Franklin and Jefferson wanted the Seal to include imagery of Moses leading the Exodus from Egypt, crossing the Sea, and G-d being present with them in their journey through the wilderness. Preserved in a note from August of 1776 in his own handwriting, Ben Franklin wrote:
“Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity.”
Jefferson’s ideal seal included not only this image, but an image of “the children of Israel being led in the wilderness by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night”. The two were combined into the original proposed Seal below:
This realization of the Seal based on the First Committee’s design in their own writing was made in 1856, and although these images were not incorporated into the Seal that was ultimately chosen by Congress in 1782; it is clear how the imagery and teachings of our text directly influenced these architects of our nation.
On July 4, we celebrate joyously the rights of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”… three of the great values of Judaism. The concept of Pikuach HaNefesh (saving a life), is paramount in our tradition; and we are taught throughout our Sacred Writings (Lev. 18:5, Ezek. 20:11, Neh. 9:29, and throughout the Talmud, especially in Yoma to name a few) about the importance of “living”. Liberty and freedom are also values deeply ingrained in our faith. From Avraham’s first journey of “Lech L’cha” we learn to go out and follow our values of freedom; and this quest for true liberty is a unifying quality that goes throughout our history: from the Exodus to the Maccabees to the early pioneers in Israel. “The Pursuit of Happiness” is clearly one of the basic tenets of our religion, as we are taught in Psalm 100, “The work of G-d is found in joy” (Ivdu et HaShem B’simcha). July 4 is a time for us to be happy, grateful, and celebrate our ability to be practicing Jews in this country; an opportunity that did not exist for many of our ancestors, and even for many Jews around the world today.
As Jews, we need to remember the teachings of the Founders of this nation: that we must not only “speak” against injustices… but act against them. We must work diligently for the preservation of Life in all it’s facets; constantly seek for ourselves and others full and lasting freedom; and pursue happiness and live joyously as part of our accepting G-d’s yoke upon us.
And when we do these things, like the Founders of this nation did over 230 years ago; we will truly be repairing the world…
Happy Fourth of July…another of the great “Jewish” holidays.
Rabbi Barclay teaches theology at Loyola Marymount University, and is the Associate Rabbi at Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills, CA. He can be reached at MBarclay@LMU.edu