An Imperfect Union: Reflections by a Home-Sick American

America is a country at war with itself.  Some might even call this a civil war, although the country is split not only in two.  Today, we have the haves and have nots, the dark-skinned and light, Democrats and Republicans, religious liberals and evangelical conservatives, biased judges and traumatized victims, gun lobbyists and outraged gun control advocates, law abiding citizens and terrorists.  Those who live within our borders do not interpret our fundamental values in the same way as each other: “the pursuit of happiness,” “the right to bear arms…”  We disagree on what trumps what, and in the meantime there’s gunfire.  How is this not war?  “War” is a strong term, but it is apt when there are weapons, killing, and brutalization involved, and on a shockingly regular basis.

Who is losing this war?  “We the people.”  Those of us who want so much to partake of our patriotism without the bitter side order of national shame and sadness constantly being slopped onto our plate.  We who cherish the ideals for which our country is supposed to stand—which the sight of our waving flag is supposed to inspire around the world.  “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”  Such noble and appropriate aspirations for a society, being shot down, one by one… by every bullet fired that could have been prevented.  By every unjust court verdict privileging sex or race or social standing.  By every casualty of a dysfunctional healthcare system.  By every million dollar bonus paid out of taxpayer bailout money.  How can we the people boast of our perfect union, of justice and domestic tranquility, of common defense and general welfare, of the blessings of liberty, and of united states?  We are not achieving this.  We the people, are losing this war.

Three years ago, after ordination, I moved to Sydney, Australia for my first pulpit.  Twice a year my husband and I return to the States, and our most recent visit was a particularly “patriotic” one.  At customs, we were greeted with two words that unfailingly bring a tear to my eye when uttered by someone with stars and stripes sewn on their sleeve: “Welcome home.”  We visited Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 Memorial for the first time.  In an airport, we stood alongside the USO, a troupe of bagpipers, and applauding onlookers, as aged army veterans returned from a visit to the Washington war memorial.  When we headed back to Sydney, the flags were still flying at half mast in honor of Memorial Day.  At each stop along our unintended “national pride” tour, my tears flowed.  I love America.  “I’m proud to be an American.”  “God bless America, land that I love.”  “America, America,” may “God shed His grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.”  Again, the tears…

But patriotism is a funny thing – seductive, and deceptive.  In Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, author Sebastian Junger argues that humans have evolved over millennia to crave solidarity—being part of something greater than ourselves, and the sense of purpose that comes along with looking out for the larger group.  We’ve evolved communally.  It’s natural for us to feel sentiments like patriotism – pride of peoplehood and country.  The problem, he suggests, is that today, many of us who call ourselves patriotic are all about feeling and expressing pride in our country, but we’re not so willing to make the sacrifices that really earn it.  We want to be “we the people,” but we’re not really willing to do what it takes to be a people.  Certain individuals are, like the vets we applauded, who paid the true price of the freedoms and luxuries that the rest of us enjoy relatively free of charge.  And there are others who work for our common welfare and fight in some way for the values enshrined in our Constitution: the fire fighters who ran up the stairs of the burning towers; the Stanford sexual assault victim who relived her horrid experience in a 7,000 word court statement in pursuit of justice; politicians who stood on the senate floor for 15 hours to push for sensible gun legislation.  But most of us just want the feel-good part of patriotism without working in the trenches for it.  We want the reward without the duty.

The Torah cautions against this disconnect.  A census is taken; every person is counted and assigned a duty.  Each of the twelve tribes brings an offering for the dedication of the communal mishkan.  In Tribe, Junger laments that “the beauty and tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good” – not so back in our tribal days!  Everyone had to serve the common good.  Even those who didn’t want to enter the promised land had to fight for it.  Want to stay on this side of the Jordan?  First fight with your brothers for the land that’s important to them.  And once everyone is settled and luxuriating in that land, don’t attribute your easy life to the work of your own hands, warns God.  Don’t take pride in the things you didn’t earn; give thanks for them.  Recognize them as holy, through blessing.  Give something back.  Offer something up.

“The beauty and tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good.”  If it’s “we the people” we love, then we need to see our service to that people as commanded, not voluntary, and rekindle our tribal sense of social responsibility and personal sacrifice.  If we’re going to sing songs of patriotism, we need to get some skin in the game.  America, America, God shed His grace on thee.  And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.

May “we the people” prevail over fracture, and embody the values for which we stand:  Perfect union – shleimut;  Justice – tzedek;  Domestic tranquility – shalom;  General welfare – briut;  Blessings – brachot.

Rabbi Nicole K. Roberts serves North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia.


chaplains Rabbis

What it Means to Be American: Reflections on Memorial Day

Francis Salvador was the first Jewish American to die in service to America.  He was the kind of person that Jacob Marcus z”l  would have talked about.  He was born in England to a family that was Spanish and Portuguese.  He left his wife and four children to come to the New World in 1773.  He was the first Jew elected to the Provincial Congress in the colonies, and was an advocate for independence.  He was also a slave-owner.  On July 31, 1776 he was shot in a battle against British loyalists and Cherokees and scalped.  He died at age 29.

Salvador could be described in many ways in our age of identity politics.  He was an immigrant.  A Jew. A revolutionary.  A racist slave-owner.  A Settler.  A politician.  An adventurer.  A businessman.  A father and husband.  A soldier.  He was all of these things, and none of them.

In this moment in our nation’s history that finds our country more bitterly divided than in my lifetime, and almost as divided as it has ever been in our history, it is worthwhile to remember Salvador, and those like him.  The descriptions of those with whom we disagree has degenerated into easy hate-filled epithets but the reality is so much more complex than that.

On Memorial Day, we pause for a moment and to remember those who have given their life for this Republic, and the cost of building and preserving it.  Memorial Day began as a day to decorate the graves of those who died in our Civil War.  It was meant to remember those of the Confederacy as well as the Union. In life, they were native born and immigrant, Irish and English, German and French, Jew and Christian, pro-slave and anti-slave.  Freed slaves and those who had enslaved them.  But in death, they were equal.  It has been this way since this nation was first imagined. In death, they were, ultimately, Americans.

If we could all truly appreciate the significance of this, perhaps our political conversations would be more focused on the issues and less on heaping hate on those who disagree with us.  The ideal of what America means, and what it could be, has inspired men and women to give their lives for 240 years, since the death of Francis Salvador.  For 240 years, America’s sons and daughters have given all for a country governed by law and committed to freedom.  It is up to us to decide whether there will be another 240 years to come.

Rabbi Steven Ballaban serves as a Chaplain in the United States Navy.