Monthly Archives: December 2020

The privilege of freedom

Following our intense time together during the Holyday season – from the serious observation of our lives during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to the celebration of joy, nature and gratitude during the Sukkot week, to the reflections of Shemini Atzeret and then to the end of the yearly Torah reading cycle marked by Simchat Torah – we are now back to the days of routine, or as routine as they can be during this strange pandemic.

It is one thing, say our Sages, to have heightened spiritual and Jewish awareness during these moments of celebration, and another to take the affirmations we made, the prayers we uttered, the hopes that we shared, and to inculcate them all into our daily lives. That is the challenge for each of us, and I hope that these days are used to learn, bond with our Jewish heritage, affirm our relationship with God, increase love and justice in the world, and to enable us to always be mindful of the preciousness and sanctity of each passing moment of our lives.

This month there is an important Presidential election in the United States and, regardless of the result we would like to see, it is good to remember that there are precious few nations in the world whose citizens can freely choose their leaders. I am often expected to ‘answer’ for America – its President, the country, its people, its faults and blemishes, along with its strengths, of course. It’s an unfair burden on me, one of over 330,000,000 citizens of a country as diverse as any in the world. I do hope that no matter who is elected to take on the next four difficult years, they will always heed the words of Abraham Lincoln, in his address at his inauguration for his second term as President in March 1865:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Those words were delivered as the United States was in the last throes of a brutal Civil War, a country divided by internecine conflict that took the lives of almost a million citizens. The message is a reminder to us all about the value of democracy, of our values, of healing wounds rather than stoking mindless hatred and violence. This is my prayer for the United States, and for every nation in the world. As many of you know, I recently became a citizen of the United Kingdom, in addition to my United States citizenship. Both countries have provided our people with the freedom and dignity that few places around the world have given to Jews.

But democracy, as we all should know, is a fragile institution that will rise or fall depending on the values of its citizenry and we must protect it. That protection comes from each citizen accepting responsibility for the culture and values of decency and goodness. That is the only way our great nations can survive.

My own appreciation of democracy and freedom was crystallised in the 1980s, when I made numerous trips to the former Soviet Union, a country that deprived its citizens of basic freedoms of speech, of the media, of culture, of language, of religion. I saw first-hand what oppression was all about, especially the way the Soviet regime persecuted and tyrannised its Jewish citizens. During those trips I was reminded why my own grandparents left Belarus, Russia and Ukraine to seek freedom in the United States, and why my grandmother kissed the soil of a country that gave her family freedom, Jewish freedom. I am certain that we all have similar feelings regarding our families that sought haven here in the UK from Germany, from Austria, from Eastern Europe, or earlier from tsarist Russia. I believe that we should express our gratitude each day that our ancestors had the courage and resolute will to leave the past behind and seek a better future for us, their descendants.

Therefore, regardless of the challenges facing the United States and the rest of the world, let us remember where we are, the context of history which brought us to these lands of freedom, and do everything in our power to sustain that gift. And in the spirit of Chanukah, when our Maccabean ancestors battled for religious freedom, let us also remember what it was and is like to fight foes who try to take those freedoms from us.

May you all have a wonderful couple of months. Celebrate Chanukah and rejoice in the freedoms that we too often take for granted. Remember our history and our heritage.

In shalom always,
Rabbi Altshuler