In this week’s parshah, Moshe is instructed to speak to the Jewish people in Hashem’s name, saying, “And now, if you listen diligently to My voice and preserve my covenant, you shall be my treasured people.”
Our bris, covenant, with Hashem is at the heart of who we are as a people. Our history begins with Avraham and the Bris Bein HaB’sarim. The bris milah is a symbol of entering into the covenant with G-d. Shabbos is called a bris olam between Hashem and the Jewish people. The word bris is mentioned more than 250 times in Tanach. Our founding story is the Exodus from Egypt and receiving the Torah. Both are referred to as a bris. The Exodus marks our birth as a nation. The receiving of the Torah was the acceptance of commitments, ideals, and values. We recall the Exodus from Egypt and recite the blessing thanking G-d for giving us the Torah every day, because those events define who we are as a people.
The covenant is not based on common ancestry but on common ideals and translating them into action through the performance of mitzvos.
To be sure, we have never fully lived up to the ideals of the covenant. The prophets frequently spoke out against the immorality and injustice of their time. We blame the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash on the sin’as chinam – baseless hatred – that caused us to fight among ourselves, rather than to unite to face our common challenges. Yet, while we frequently fell short, we never stopped believing and being committed to our ideals. It is that belief and commitment that enabled us to persevere and survive as a people through 2,000 years of exile and oppression and to regain sovereignty in our historic homeland.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l wrote that the United States is also a covenantal society. This is evidenced by the fact that the memorials on the National Mall in Washington, DC, contain not only the statues but the words of heroes like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King. Other nations are founded on blood and soil, common ancestry and a common land. The motto of the United States is e pluribus unum – out many, one. People from around the world came together in a covenant to found a nation based on the ideals of “liberty and justice for all.”
Rabbi Sacks wrote that founding stories are crucial to moral education in covenant societies. As Jews, our founding stories are the Exodus from Egypt and the acceptance of the Torah. These are not simple stories. They are the key to describing who we are and what we hope to be.
As Americans, our founding story is the Revolutionary War, the successful attempt to start an independent nation based on the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal”and a government of “We, the people.” It is also the Civil War, which led to “a new birth of freedom,” with the abolition of slavery. While we often fell short of our ideals, they do describe who we are at our best and what we should always aspire to be.
In the words of Rabbi Sacks, “there are stories that ennoble and others that stultify, leaving us prisoners of ancient grievances or impossible ambitions.” In the years since Rabbi Sacks wrote his essay, there have been some who have sought to replace the ennobling story of 1776 with the stultifying story of 1619.
According to many progressives, the real founding of the United States was in 1619, when the first African American slaves were brought to Virginia. We are a nation founded by white colonial oppressors, they say, who fought the Revolutionary War to preserve slavery, and instituted a government based on “systemic racism.” Our country is hopelessly divided between the scions of “white privilege” and the victimized “people of color.”
I am not disputing facts. The first African American slaves were brought to Virginia in 1619. Slavery was a key to the American economy for hundreds of years. Many of the founders were slave holders. Others, who never owned slaves themselves, profited from an economy based on slavery. A system very similar to apartheid, which denied African Americans their basic rights, existed in large parts of the United States until the 1960s. Whites have had opportunities to advance themselves, which African Americans were denied. Racial segregation and discrimination existed and continue to exist throughout the United States to this very day. These facts are a shameful but important part of our history. They should be taught in our schools.
Where the advocates of 1619 go wrong is in saying that these facts and these facts alone define us as a people, and that the ideals and values proclaimed in 1776 are a sham. They go wrong in considering the American flag, under which 500,000 soldiers, many of them Black, but most of them white, died in a war to end slavery, a symbol of tyranny and oppression. There were whites involved in the movement to abolish slavery often at great personal sacrifice. Our parents and grandparents came here to escape from the pogroms and the Holocaust. They lived in the tenements and worked in the sweat shops. To call them beneficiaries of white privilege denigrates their achievements. Tearing down statues may make people feel good, but it does nothing to ease the plight of people who are victims of poverty and discrimination today.
Insisting that 1619 defines who we are denies the essence of America as a covenantal nation and claims that we are divided between white oppressors and victimized “people of color.” It is at the foundation of the polarization and grievance-based identity politics that are tearing America apart.
The key to addressing the injustices of our past and building a more hopeful future is the idea of America as a covenantal nation. We are united not by common ancestry but by common ideals. Those ideals define us as a nation. It’s those very ideals that demand that we overcome racism and discrimination.
At the heart of every covenant is the realization that we often fall short. The ideas of our Jewish prophets are hailed around the world. Our prophets were at their best when they spoke out against immorality and injustice and challenged us to do better.
America is a covenant society that has brought more freedom, opportunity, and prosperity to more people than any country in the history of the world. Yet, for too long, too many people were excluded from the covenant. Hewing communities out of the wilderness represents America at its best. Driving Native Americans off their lands represent America at its worst. Slavery and Jim Crow represent America at its worst. Emancipation and the civil rights movement represent America at its best. Welcoming millions of Jewish and other immigrants to begin new lives of freedom and opportunity represent America at its best. Closing the doors of immigration and abandoning the Jews of Europe to their fate in the Holocaust represents America at its worst. Leading the successful fight to save the world from Nazi tyranny was America at its best. Denying African American veterans the recognition they deserved and subjecting them to discrimination was America at its worst.
The American covenant teaches us to believe in and practice our ideals. It is those ideals that motivated us to our greatest achievements. It is those ideals that demand that we recognize and correct our shortcomings. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday was celebrated earlier this week, understood that, when he called upon America to “rise up and live the true meaning of its creed.”
America today is a nation in crisis. We have lost faith in the institutions that are the bedrock of preserving our liberty and we have lost faith in each other. We are descending into a collection of warring tribes vying for the mantle of victimhood. Our differences are real and must be acknowledged. Issues that divide us should be debated. But that debate should take place in a spirit of mutual respect.
The battle over our history is not really about our past. It is about how we should look at our present and our future. It is destructive because it pits us against one another. We can and must do better. We can take pride in our achievements and celebrate the ideals of 1776, while recognizing that those very ideals require us to overcome the injustices of 1619.
What Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” should summon us to come together as one people to reaffirm the covenant. Let us believe in our ideals, take pride in our achievements, acknowledge our failures, and move ever forward in the ongoing work of building “a more perfect Union.”