“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, as its name implies, tells the story of this nation’s birth, beginning with a sound-and-light show, and then funneling visitors through other exhibits. Some of them – particularly videos of new immigrants taking the oath of citizenship – are so moving that the unwary visitor might find themself in very public tears.
But the museum’s last exhibit is the one that packs the hugest punch.
Your head already full of the splendid language and noble concepts of the 18th century, you wander into a room that holds 42 life-size sculptures, grouped not in museum-like formality but as if their models had been talking to each other when somehow they had been frozen forever into bronze.
You are in Signers’ Hall, and those bronzes are the men who risked their lives for their ideals. As you look at them, you are struck by their size. Some were large, but this was the 18th century, when people were less well-nourished and on average much smaller than they are today. Some of the signers of the Constitution, those giants of American history, were the size of very small women.
You are struck as well by the fact that these men were human beings, real people, and that the risks they took were not at all theoretical. Their acts of courage and conviction led directly to the freedoms we have today.
Is this country perfect? No, of course it is not. It was created and continues to be governed by people, and people by definition are imperfect. But it has given us as Jews – just as it gives all of us, simply as Americans – the freedom to be ourselves, to live as we chose, in security, surrounded by beauty, with the freedom to practice religion as we wish or not at all if that is our wish. It gives us the freedom to pursue happiness.
This Fourth of July Shabbat marks a glorious coincidence, as our two cultures’ celebrations merge. Because it is Shabbat our fireworks will have to be virtual, but they will be no less vivid, golden, and ear-shatteringly joyous for it. On Friday night, as we mark our liberation both from political tyranny and from the week’s own burdensome rules, let freedom ring.