As we commemorate our Nation's Independence, we can be especially mindful of the blessings America has bestowed upon its Jewish citizenry.
It was in the year 1654 that the first Jews came to what was then the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam.
Twenty-three Jewish men, women and children had fled Brazil because of the Portuguese conquest there, and they landed their ship at the Battery just a few miles from what is today West 16th Street in Manhattan.
For 365 years, Jews have been part of our American tapestry.
We have all received the blessings bestowed upon us because of the democratic values that our nation holds sacred.
Our Judaism and Americanism live in perfect tandem, one with the other.
President George Washington wrote to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790:
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.
President Washington concludes his letter with the offering of a blessing to his fellow American citizens:
May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid...May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
The words of our first president should be cherished as he placed, with his invaluable leadership, the foundation for how our nation protected religious liberty for all, and pursues a course of Holy behavior.
It's not surprising that President Washington was concerned for proper behavior; he was schooled in the "rules of civility and decent behavior."
A historic treasure is his transcription - which he wrote as a sixteen year old - of these values embedded in his consciousness.
A few examples of these teachings he recorded for himself (adapted):
- Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.
- Show nothing to your friend that may frighten him.
- Sleep not when others speak; Sit not when others stand; Speak not when you should hold your peace; walk not on when others stop.
- Let your countenance be pleasant, but in serious matters be somewhat grave.
- When you see a crime punished, you may be pleased, but always retain your pity.
- When visiting the sick, don't "play" physician.
- Avoid arrogance; be sweet and mild.
- Do not express joy before one who is in pain.
- Use no reproachful language against anyone; neither curse nor revile.
- Associate yourself with people of good quality.
- Let your conversation be without malice or envy; in all causes push aside passion and let reason govern.
- Don't detract from others; neither be excessive in commanding.
- Don't give advice without being asked.
- Don't undertake what you cannot perform, but be careful to keep your promise.
- When you speak of God or His attributes, let it be with seriousness and reverence.
- Honor your parents.
- Let your recreations not be sinful.
- Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.
In Judaism, we study the "Ethics of our Fathers," as codified by the rabbis approximately 2000 years ago.
What is so striking is how synonymous our rabbinic teaching is with the best of American values and laws.
We can be immensely proud as we celebrate our nation's independence, and let us pray:
"May God bless America with peace and security; happiness and prosperity; right and freedom forever abide among us."