Since the Fourth of July falls on Shabbat this year, this question is even more relevant, and something I thought I understood; and up until this past November I would have said that I was an American Jew… American first, Jewish second.
There is a precise and definitive moment that this changed for me… and many subsequent moments that continue to clarify it. I am and will always be a JEWISH American. I am a Jew first and foremost and I will explain why.
The Moment It Changed… Sunset… November 11 , 2014.
The Place… Misgav Am, a kibbutz in the Upper Galilee, situated between Lebanon and Syria.
The People… The JMI and Aryeh Ben Yaakov. His face has the lines of many stories, his demeanor gruff and honest. He is 72 or 73 and made Aliyah in 1962, coming from Cleveland at age 20.
He asked us all a seemingly simple question… Are you Jewish Americans or American Jews? As I said, before this day and for my entire lifetime I defined myself one way… That changed with his question and with his follow-up:
He said we are Jewish first (no matter where we live) and happen (by chance) to be American or Canadian or whatever country we hail from. He tells us we must embrace this. It is essential for our survival and should and must be an immense source of pride. (Feel free to read about it more at This Year In Jerusalem.)
The trip brought me to a very holy place… literally and figuratively. I have mentioned this several times before, I know. But it is essential for me… a turning point. I have never felt that holy, before or since. There are moments of it, but not as strong, not as continual. I long to go back to Israel. I long to relive and recapture holy… And I am working on it every day.
Upon my return to the States and “normal” life, I knew I wanted to continue my journey, and I did so with prayer and study. Pirkei Avos class weekly, Kabbalah study weekly… meeting with Rabbis and reading and listening… Aryeh Kaplan, David Aaron, the Tanakh, Audio classes at Aish.com and Chabad.org.
“While a baby develops within the womb, an angel teaches him the entire Torah. Just before birth, the angel touches the child on his mouth causing him to forget all that he has learned (Talmud – Niddah 30b).” (Torchweb.org)
If you accept this, we are Jewish first and what nationality we are depends a bit on the luck of the draw… Even though you are not supposed to be flying after the 36th week of pregnancy, you could, conceivably (Pun mildly intended) give birth/be born anywhere in the world.
Israel inspired me to first think this way… but it is the studying that really cements and makes it so. I am thrilled to be an American… to be living in a free country… but Judaism shows me how to live… how to give my life meaning and value.
For what comes before nations? Before the world? Before creation? Hashem.
Everything in the world was created so that we know Hashem… Love Hashem.
Pirkei Avos, Chapter Six, Number 11 says:
“All that the Holy One, Blessed is He, created in His world. He created solely for His glory, as it is said: “All that is called by My Name, indeed it is for My glory that I have created it, formed it, and made it”And it says Hashem shall reign for all eternity.”
Learning Torah gives us joy and meaning. The Torah and our brilliant teachers, like Rabbi Noah Weinberg, Of Blessed Memory, teach us the essentials of finding a purpose… defining your life and discovering the meaning of it.
So if our lives are defined by finding clarity for ourselves, finding and giving service for and to Hashem and treating others with kindness, what is there other than being Jewish, at least first and foremost? It is who we are, our true identity and helps us to discover our purpose.
We should and must celebrate the Fourth of July… we should and must love and respect this country, and proudly call ourselves American… Jewish Americans.