Once in a Red, White, and Blue Moon

A reflection from Avi West, Master Teacher of Federation’s Jewish Education Department

This year, the 4th of July coincides with Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Tammuz. A value shared by Rosh Chodesh and July 4th is hakarat hatov, the moral imperative to recognize and appreciate the good one receives. In the liturgical prayers announcing a new month, we say,

“May the One who wrought miracles for our ancestors and redeemed them from servitude to freedom, continue to redeem us, and speedily unite our dispersed kin… Let ALL Israel be committed to one another, Amen.”

This coincidence of a lunar calendar month with a solar calendar date is an opportunity to consider some of ways in which America has been a gift to its Jewish citizens—and how its Jewish citizens have enriched America. As my grandma used to say, “A country like America doesn’t come around often; only once in a blue moon!”

One aspect of Rosh Chodesh that is Instructive to the 4th of July is to he wisdom of the Jewish calendar being fixed to lunar cycles reminds us of how things fluctuate naturally. Sometimes the moon is full, sometimes it seems absent, and we must accept its cycle of waxing and waning. So too with our lives—as individuals, families, and society—issues move in cycles, and to panic only complicates the situation. Civil debate and a spirit of hopefulness can carry us through life’s rollercoaster of challenges and triumphs.

This is reminiscent of the parts of the Declaration of Independence that remind us we are created equal and endowed with the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The reference to “miracles” in the liturgy uses the Hebrew word ness. We may be familiar with it from the Chanukah story. But it has a broader meaning in biblical Hebrew, also referring to a flag, banner, or standard. With this new understanding, we can also show appreciation for what America has meant to Jews and other seekers of freedom by flying the American flag. The “stars and stripes” is the banner under which we march forward to continue building the democracy in which we have thrived. Rabbi Mark Pelavin framed it this way:

“This nation, our nation, is a great and good nation. This nation, our nation, also is—now and always—in need of repair. As we strive to be God’s partners in the work of tikkun olam—repair of the all-too-fractured world in which we live—let us be mindful of the journey that remains before the true promise of America can be realized.”

Hillel, the great sage of the first century would surely have loved the Jewish challenge of living in America. His “balance-beam” mantra was, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?” In this democracy, Jews can unpack this statement to create a balanced portfolio of civic activity by working within the Jewish community to nurture it as a source of spiritual inspiration for yourself and extended family, reaching out to do societal repair and foster intergroup cooperation on our shared community agenda, and training ourselves to respond “hineni”—I am present, ready, and willing to answer the call to civic duty. This formulation illustrates how Jews living in democracy must be both dependent and independent.

A country where Jews can be fully Jewish and fully patriotic—now that is something that comes around once in a blue moon!  The 4th of July is a good time to celebrate this opportunity and talk about our responsibility, while still being aware of our need to be vigilant and active in the continued preservation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It may be fitting to have this “frank” discussion around the BBQ.