By Rabbi Will Berkovitz, CEO.
What is the price of freedom? This question is what I have been reflecting on around Independence Day this year. It seems our conversations are drifting out of balance with personal rights dominating communal responsibilities.
The word “we” has been replaced with “me.” Or “we” as long it is narrowly defined to suit our perspective. We want our freedom, but are we willing to give anything for it? Judaism is rooted in the collective over the individual. I wonder how our ancestors would look upon us today. I think of how grateful my grandparents were to immigrate to the United States despite the daily challenges they endured. I think of my uncle who stormed the beaches of Normandy and liberated the Camps in Germany – not long before he died, he told me the nightmares haunted him his entire life. He fought for an idea bigger than himself.
Our collective freedom is that idea. There is clearly still much work to do to achieve a “more perfect Union, establish justice and domestic tranquility.” As much as we may want to believe it has been achieved, it is clear our freedom is a work in progress and isn’t evenly distributed among all citizens. It is still an aspiration – something we must doggedly struggle to advance. The process of cultural change is messy and complicated. It happens in fits and starts, lurching forward and sliding back. None of us can be spectators in this effort.
As we navigate this turbulent moment, many people have asked me “what am I willing to sacrifice” in order to bring about a greater collective freedom. In English, we talk about making sacrifices. But I have always preferred the Hebrew word, “korban.” It shares a root with the word for “close.” It is more profound than semantic to think not of making “sacrifices,” but doing that which “draws us closer.” So, I don’t think in terms of sacrifices, but rather drawing closer to all those who strive to achieve a more perfect and just Union for all citizens.
In a few weeks we will commemorate Tisha B’av, which, among other tragedies, was the day the Temple in Jerusalem fell to the Romans. In a famous legend the Rabbis tell that Jerusalem fell not because of the Romans, but because of needless hatred within the community. In many ways I see this happening again today.
It is easier to demonize people who disagree with us than to try to understand their motivations and lived realities. Why they believe what they believe. How they too might be working for a more just society and perfect Union. They may have a different approach – one that makes us uncomfortable or one that we find tired and ineffective. I wonder if we could sit with such righteous judgment if we had to really get to know the people whose views we condemn – spend time with their families, understand their joys and sorrows. I doubt it. It’s much more difficult to harden a heart that experiences shared humanity and common aspirations.
I was talking with my art teacher last weekend and she commented, “When the variations in a painting distract from the whole, you know there is something out of balance. At the same time, if the variations don’t stand out enough, things look flat, dull and lifeless. A painting becomes transcendent when that harmony is achieved.”
That is true for our society as well. In many ways I think her reflection is a metaphor for this moment as we celebrate our imperfect Union, our uneven freedom, and our incomplete independence. It is a recognition that maybe we should celebrate our “interdependence” instead of our “independence.”
Maybe we need to strive for more balance among our variations by expanding our perspectives and deepening our understanding. And challenging each other to work toward a more just and perfect Union for everyone in ways that are true and authentic for them. In this way we can tip the scales back toward a communal dream of America. I like to believe that was the ideal my uncle, and so many like him, fought for. And we should never forget – it is that ideal we are still fighting for. Let’s make sure we don’t turn that fight upon ourselves.
In Peace and Freedom,
Rabbi Will Berkovitz
Chief Executive Officer