On the evening of the fourth of July in the United States, you may spot colorful bolts of fireworks splitting the sky. Perhaps your fork is wedged in a slice of apple pie, or watermelon juice is dripping from your fingers as orchestras sound the national anthem.
The fireworks above you signify joy, abundance, and unbridled freedom: a burst of light in the darkness commemorated year after year.
Independence cannot exist in a vacuum: its existence depends on a starting point - a flame to the firework’s fuse - and a set of conditions from which the subject gains freedom. In commemorating independence, we must ask both:
What are we seeking independence from?
as well as
What are we seeking freedom to do?
Who Do You Depend Upon?
The Talmud teaches that a parent has multiple obligations to their child in order to bring them to independence: to teach the child Torah, find them a partner, teach them a craft or trade, and make sure they can swim.
Ultimately, we cannot become independent by ourselves. We need the help and support of others to demonstrate what independence looks like, cheer us on, and let us be. Thus, our independence is the product of our relationships with teachers, camp counselors, parents, driving instructors, employers, and many others.
What aspects of your independence can you attribute to lessons you learned from people upon which you once depended?
In fostering independence, the Talmud outlines specific skills. Why are some actions specified over others? What do they signify?
If you were to rewrite this text to address the skills for “Jewish independence”, what would it say? What would you put on the list so you could be more “Jewishly independent”?
Our relationship with independence is always in dialogue with what came before us and what shaped our understanding of freedom. Our individual journeys to independence are far from linear: sometimes we are confronted with unimaginable situations that prematurely thrust us into adulthood. And at other times, we have the privilege to teeter between seeking dependence and craving autonomy.
On the eve of leaving Egypt, G-d commands Moses and the Jewish People to create a “calendar” based on the lunar months and the solar year. In other words, G-d equips a newly independent people with the ability to control and sanctify their own time – whereas in slavery that freedom was denied – therefore gaining responsibility for their choices and actions.
The Israelites quickly learned that independence does not come without ties and responsibilities: the ability to control how we spend our physical, emotional, and mental energy is a privilege that places us within a larger community.
Within our own daily existence, we also navigate the tension between rights and responsibilities. Being able to drive allows for a freedom to journey, to escape and to explore, but also requires a commitment to a set of rules that ensure everyone’s safety. Making an important life decision can be incredibly liberating, as well as demanding entry into a new system of rights and commitments.
Whether changing a tire or cooking a meal, balancing a bank account or traveling abroad, we’ve each acquired skills and developed dispositions that contribute to our sense of independence.
In this exercise, review a bunch of actions that were important to you in becoming independent and identify how you dealt with the responsibilities that came with them.
To Celebrate and To Complicate
While the fireworks of July 4th seem to sparkle above us equally, the important worldwide conversations around racial justice at this time have asked us to consider whether our national independence lives up to the values for which we fought for freedom in the first place.
We have come to realize that there are those still fighting for basic freedoms while we thought everyone equally enjoyed the liberties of 21st century living. The freedoms that should be communally experienced - to vote, to live without fear, to have access to equitable housing and healthcare - were actually afforded to some and denied to others.
Yet, our national independence remains a source of strength and joy, and there are multiple ways to engage, commemorate, celebrate, and perhaps question all the nuances. We can hold space for pride in how far we have come as well as critical reflection for where we still need to go.
Of Independence Day, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival…It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”