Bisseleh Bytes


American Flag

Amidst the picnics, cookouts, family and friend gatherings, fireworks, and general celebration-of-summer fun that have all become associated with the Fourth of July, let us not lose sight of WHY we have this day on which to relax and celebrate.

A little less than 240 years ago, a brave band of men and women set upon a path…one that railed against sovereign rule from afar, one that demanded voice and dignity and opportunity. They imagined a country unlike those of Europe. They imagined a land that would stand for independence and democratic freedom.

No, these men and women were not perfect. No, they did not always see eye-to-eye on how to achieve these goals. And yes, their views on how “all men are created equal” were colored by their own experiences and social milieu.

Nonetheless, they were willing to act. They stood up and (to borrow Jewish language) each one said: “Hineini! Here am I.” What made the American Revolution successful was one simple fact: hundreds and thousands of individual colonialists stood up and were willing to be counted and to do their parts. Some – George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson – are well-known and revered. Others are lost to the winds of history. But all of them played a crucial role.

Today, in the world, there are places in which social and political upheaval is occurring…Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt…(there are many others). The question we ask is a simple one: Which side is right?

My guess is that many 240 years ago asked that same question when viewing the war between the colonies and Britain. Undoubtedly, the colonists thought themselves to be in the right. The English imagined themselves defending their legitimate rule. And others in Europe and elsewhere looked upon it all and wondered: Who is right?

In the end, we like to believe that we, Americans, were right. We hope that the last 230+ years have proven that. And it is that history – and that moment we began our formal journey as a nation – that we celebrate on the Fourth of July.

But…this conclusion was not foregone. And it was not easily won. It took work and faith and sacrifice. And that is what is happening in those places of unrest today.

We don’t know who is best for the long-term stability of their countries (and the world): Morsi or the opposition; Assad or the rebels; Karzi or the Taliban. We have fears. We have hopes. But, quite simply, we do not know…just as the world did not know 240 years ago when a group of rebel colonists raised their voices and their weapons and said: “Don’t Tread On Me.” We will have to see how their experiment in social and political change turns out.

For all our failings and frailties, the United States is an incredible place in which to live. We, who are fortunate enough to call ourselves Americans, are blessed with a life-style (generally) that is admired and envied by so many. Our opportunities (generally) are expansive. Our freedoms (generally) are safeguarded. And for that, we say thanks to those who gave of themselves – life, wisdom, wealth, and energy – to create what we know as “America.” We have and are because they sacrificed. That is what the Fourth of July is all about.

So, as you watch your fireworks and eat your burgers and potato salad, take a moment to reflect on the blessings we have. And please, pray that those places that are struggling as we did 240 years ago will have an outcome as blessed and as hopeful as ours was. May those who value individual and communal freedom have their flag fly as long and as proudly as ours.

Have a happy Fourth!


The Supremes

supremesThis week, the Supreme Court will have issued three landmark decisions that will affect all Americans.

As of this writing, they have ruled on two – one regarding the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and one on affirmative action in college admissions. The final one – regarding same-sex marriages and the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Each of these monumental issues are ones that our Jewish tradition addresses…albeit in tangential ways. Moses and the Jewish people never thought about these modern-day matters. But, they – and Torah – were sensitive to the underlying values these questions raise.

Voting rights, affirmative action, gay and lesbian marriage. All of these are questions of access…access to the voting booth, access to knowledge, access to familial rights.

This week’s parasha, Pinchas, discusses the same question…Who has rights of access in society? Whose voice matters? Who counts?

In this week’s Torah portion, we read that Tzelofechad had no sons, only daughters. As the law was written, only sons could inherit land. The daughters protested to Moses. They deserved their father’s inheritance. Without it, they were virtually invisible, without standing, without any power or access. Moses did not know what to do. He saw the injustice in denying the women access to the inheritance that had belonged to their father. But how could he change the law? So, he went to his equivalent of the Supreme Court…we went to the Tabernacle and asked God what to do?

God’s answer was simple: “The daughters of Tzelofechad have a just claim.” God was unequivocal. Just because the law was written in one way did not mean it couldn’t be changed. Why God so easily agreed it should be changed is significant. Throughout Torah, we read of one overarching theme: the needs of the “other.” Over and over again, we are reminded that we were once slaves in Egypt, we know the heart of the stranger, for we were once strangers. Innumerable times we are told to care for the widow, the orphan, the elderly, the stranger in our midst. Each – just like the daughters of Tzelofechad – were in positions without access, without rights. Without such access, their value in society is diminished. Their voices are silenced. Their presence is erased.

And we know what it means to be erased. For too many centuries, our people have been legally marginalized, legally silenced, legally erased. We know what it is to be the stranger, to be the “other.”

The Supreme Court has ruled that affirmative action may still be necessary. It has ruled that voting rights protection may still be necessary. In a few short hours from this writing, we will know what the court opines regarding same-sex unions. What are they saying about the “other” in our midst?

Much has been written already about the court’s decisions. Were these rulings good or bad for the country, for those they had been created to protect? Unlike the story in the Torah, the answers are not so clear. However, we do know that the Supreme Court is NOT God. They are not the final arbiters. We are blessed with a system that maintains checks and balances. Both the legislative and executive branches of our government have voices and power, as well.

As Jews, we are obligated to look at the decisions that have been made and will be issued later today and ask: What would the daughters of Tzelofechad have asked today if they were college students, if they were trying to vote, if they were trying to marry another woman? And more importantly, how would God have answered?

That is what I ask of our Supremes….and of our government. And I ask of you.