George Washington or We’ve All Come to Look for America - Yom Kippur 5776
No one would argue with the statement that George Washington was one of our greatest presidents. He was the General of the Revolutionary forces that somehow, against the odds, defeated the mighty British Empire with inadequate resources and troops.
The images are engraved in our minds:
Washington crossing the Delaware.
Bravely facing the winter at Valley Forge.
Washington on the dollar bill.
Washington at the Continental Congress.
The father of our country who did more than anyone else to create this Republic, who set the standard for all Presidents after him.
As I always talk about, I grew up in Washington D.C. We had picnics at the National Mall near the Washington Monument and at Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, across the Potomac River.
So I was a little stunned last year when I was walking back from shul on Shabbos after services with my two grandsons Alexander and Avi, and six-year-old Avi told me that George Washington was like Pharaoh.
When I asked Avi, who was in Kindergarten at the time, why George Washington was like Pharaoh, he said: “They both had slaves.”
The mind is a strange thing. Once Avi got me thinking about Washington’s life, I remembered something that I had tried to forget. In 1754, the French and the British were at peace. Washington, as a very young officer in the British army, was entrusted with a mission in the Ohio Valley. Under George’s command were some Native Americans under the leadership of a man known as the Half King. When their group saw a band of French soldiers, they attacked without provocation and took prisoners who they then massacred. Later, when the French captured George Washington, he signed a confession that they had murdered the Frenchmen. By the way, this could be considered the first incident in what became known as the French and Indian War, which in a way led to the Revolutionary War.
So George Washington was part of a massacre of prisoners of war. He signed a confession that admitted this. Nevertheless, he went on to become the leader of the army that gave birth to our great country. And he was, indeed, a great President.
Still, Avi’s right; he did own slaves.
The Pharaoh that Avi’s talking about, in case you’ve forgotten, was evil; the pharaohs killed infant baby boys and enslaved a whole people.
I started to wonder: How will Avi look at America if he sees its Founding Father as the moral equivalent of Pharaoh? I started thinking about a generation of kids who are growing up thinking about George Washington as evil.
On the First Day of Rosh Hashanah, I talked about a children’s show called Dora the Explorer. In the episode I was talking about, Dora goes looking for the Lost City. The Lost City is where everything we have lost in our lives can be found. And I said that there are things that we’ve lost in our personal lives, the private domain, and there are things that we’ve lost in the public domain.
And today I want to talk about how in the public domain, we’ve lost something about America, some of our patriotism has gone out of us. It’s been happening for a long time. And Avi reminded me that the greatness of America is diminished by the political correctness that teaches the new generation a certain picture of America. This political correctness, which tyrannically controls many college campuses, disparages much of the American past, condemning our greats like Washington and Jefferson.
When I talk to young people, they tell me about how little American history they know, but that they have learned about how America did a lot of terrible things, like the genocide of the native Americans and the enslavement of blacks, and that they also have learned about some good stuff that America did, like saving the world in World War II. A group of scholars who analyzed the new curriculum of the Advanced Placement U.S. History course claimed that factual lessons about the founding of our country, its constitution, and the ideals on which our political system is based, have been done away with. They say that the curriculum does not portray America as a strong, good, world leader.
Listen: I believe in teaching history.
I believe in telling the truth.
But I also believe that patriotism is a goal, patriotism is a value, and let me tell you why.
I believe in America
I love this country
I owe my life to this country
Most of the people in this room, one way or another, owe their very lives to this country.
But we forget all this.
We’ve lost our appreciation, our gratitude for this great nation.
We have to find our love of America again.
Like Dora the Explorer, we have to go on a journey to the Lost City.
Do you remember that old Simon and Garfunkel song? “They’ve all come to look for America.”
I want to find the America that I was raised with.
We’ve lost the American dream. It’s out there in the Lost City. It was the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King and Watergate and Vietnam but if you ask me, I think what was even more destructive to the American dream was the financial crisis of a few years ago. We had all made a contract with America: You get an education, you work hard, you’re a loyal employee, you make a living and you have a good place to live and a family and you live in security and that, when it comes down to it, is the American Dream.
But the financial crisis came and maybe we didn’t call it a Depression, but everyone and everything got depressed. And we lost jobs and homes but worse, we felt like we had been betrayed by an America in which the financial giants played huge games and wrecked the economy and got away with it on their yachts.
We feel like the corruption has continued and is still rampant at the highest levels.
We have a crisis and we’re shocked and we call for action and then nothing happens and nothing ever changes.
We see this country torn apart by too many leaders who put their own power over everything else, who are not public servants but see the public as an object to be manipulated. And we’re so sick of leaders who say one thing and do another that we start listening to Donald Trump, who says nothing at all but with great confidence.
And we’ve lost our love of America.
George Washington was party to a massacre of Frenchmen early in this career and he signed a confession. He owned slaves at Mount Vernon. It’s all true.
But we Jewish people believe in forgiveness and we believe in growth and moral evolution. Thank G-d, this America is not the America of 1776 or 1859 or 1963.
There was the Declaration of Independence that declared all to be equal and the Constitution that made an America in which white property-owning males were the only full citizens. But we grew until the Constitution, amendment by amendment, caught up to the vision of the Declaration of Independence. Struggle by struggle, we have created a better America. We have a long way to go but we have progressed in moral and legal ways and this is a great country.
We have so much work to do to make America better. Just last night, I criticized how we are treating our veterans. I certainly recognize how much we have to do to fight racism. Historically speaking, racism in 2015 is the legacy of those who brought black slaves to America centuries ago, who emancipated them only to keep them as the lowest caste. But history is no excuse. Racism is simply hatred; horrible hatred, which, for some twisted reason makes some people feel superior to others.
In a few weeks, I’m going to lead a discussion about Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, the original novel from which To Kill a Mockingbird, perhaps the greatest American work on racism, emerged. And in a strange way, reading this book made me feel better about what’s going on today. The novel talks about whites and blacks in the south of the 1930’s, where even one of our greatest fictional heroes, Atticus Finch, was what we would call a racist today. We have come a long way since then.
On an absolute scale, the issues involving racism show that America is not where it should be, not by a long shot. I get that loud and clear. And we need to confront injustice and inequality and brutality and racial profiling wherever it appears. It’s a shame that anyone needs to say that black lives matter. Every life matters as much as every other life.
But we can’t respond to hatred with hatred. We can’t generalize about law enforcement officers, almost all of who are fine human beings who serve their communities with their lives.
And I would insist, without apologies, that we are making progress. I believe that just as America has grown, it will continue to get better. On an absolute moral scale, Avi’s right: George Washington had slaves. But on a relative scale, he was a great man.
On an absolute scale, we are not a society of equals. But on a relative scale, we’re trying to be a good society and many of us work every day to make it better.
We can’t lose that vision of a greater America. Ronald Reagan is remembered as a great President. I’m really not so sure. I was around during those eight years and I thought that a lot of his policies and actions were wrong in principle and bad in their consequences. But he did have his share of greatness, and that’s the part that we all remember. And I remember what he said in his farewell speech to our country, when he invoked a phrase he had used so many times in his career, to call America the “shining city on the hill.” This is what he said:
“I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, … in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace … And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still.
And how stands the city on this winter night? … After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she's still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
There’s a lot I could say about these words, including what Reagan said about immigration; America should be the magnet for all who want freedom. Someone should play this speech to people who think that they are his heirs.
But that’s not my point right now. My point is that I absolutely believe in America as the shining city on the hill. And we Jewish people came here in the middle of horrible storms, and Americas was shining city, the lighthouse that saved our lives.
This is the America I want our kids to learn about. Teach them history as openly and objectively as you can and find a lot of time in the curriculum to do it, a lot more than what is being devoted to history these days in our schools. And for Heaven’s sake take less time to do all these long school projects on ancient Egypt and Rome, two oppressive and horrible empires, and more on the goodness of America.
I want our kids to know less about George Washington as a slave owner and more about the man who would not be king and thereby created this republic, who led his people to victory against impossible odds and helped create an America that could, over time, reach for the fulfillment of its true promise.
Using these thoughts, let me turn back to the private domain. There are people in your life and you know what? They’re not perfect. They never owned slaves or killed prisoners of war, but they’ve made mistakes. On an absolute scale, they may not be ideal people.
Job said: “Shall we not take the bad from G-d as well as the good?” I would ask, “Shall we only take the good from people or can we understand that they‘ve done some things wrong and have made their share of mistakes and have said some stupid things or cracked some stupid jokes at exactly the wrong time?”
Shall we not take the bad from the people we love and accept the fact that sometimes people just blow it?
You’re correct; the person you’re thinking of right now has made mistakes.
You’re right, he has had times of weakness and depression, like when he was unemployed and felt worthless,
or was rejected for that promotion and felt stuck,
or she had a bad boss who drove her crazy but she kept her mouth shut because your family couldn’t afford for her to lose her job and she resented being trapped in the situation and blamed you so she would come home and needed to let it out and she let it out right between your eyes.
You’re right; she was at a charity auction and fell in love with a bizarre painting that made “Hello Dolly” look like Salvador Dali, and it cost 3000 dollars and it is now hidden in the basement. She shouldn’t have bought it, and certainly not without telling you. But it just happened; it was just a moment. You couldn’t afford it. It was a waste. But that was a long time ago. You don’t have to bring it up every time you get irritated. She never bought another painting, not even an etch-a-sketch, and she never did anything like that again. Enough.
We are so judgmental, as if we’re perfect.
We have to forgive, we have to take the bad with the good from the people in our lives and we have to take the bad with the good from America because there is so much good and so much progress.
Let me try to bring all this together.
George Washington was involved in a massacre and owned slaves. But no Avi, he was not like Pharaoh. He was caught in a terrible situation and he confessed what he did wrong. He was a product of his time and place where slavery was part of the economy. But he went on to help forge the greatest nation in history.
He is an example of how we should think about people in general. They’re not perfect. That’s why we have the High Holidays, to forgive others and to try to do better ourselves. The High Holidays are about repentance. Why are these our most important holidays? Because we believe that moral self-improvement is possible.
Avi, I want you to understand that a country, like a person, must always be in the process of trying to be better. Your parents will make mistakes but they’re good people who want the best for their children. I know it’s impossible to believe, but even your grandfather will make a few little, minuscule errors here and there. And Avi honey, I know you won’t be able to see this yet, but you’ll make mistakes, too. When you do, forgive yourself.
And Avi, one of these days, I want to take you to look for America. I want to take you and your siblings Alexander and Leah, and your first cousin Talia Sam, to Washington where I grew up. And I want to take you to the National Mall that stretches out from the Washington Monument. It’s not a mall like the ones where your grandparents buy you everything and spoil you rotten. This Mall is an area which has been the scene of democracy at its finest, the scene of controversy and protest and persuasion. More than any other single place, it is where our country’s progress has been demonstrated step by step. It is where women marched to advocate their right to vote. It’s where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech that led the way to civil rights for the descendants of slaves, and your great-grandfather was standing there. And it is the place where many thousands of people, including your grandfather, protested a war that that they thought was wrong. The historian Stephen Ambrose has asked: Why is it that it’s in the shadow of the Washington monument that we Americans come together to protest and grieve and affirm? Because it is precisely George Washington, despite anything else, who represents our strength and our democracy and our pride and our unity. And I want your generation to understand all this.
And remember, Avi, that you live in the greatest nation in history. This is the city on the hill. You are blessed, more than you can possibly understand, to live here in this time. Never, ever forget that.
I say to all of you: Never forget what America is. For all the Watergates and corruption and racism, America, the better America, is always pushing forward to live up to its dream. And we cannot forget that our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents were those pilgrims wracked by the storm, rocked by the waves of hatred and persecution, and we came here, to this beacon of light. Never forget what America is.
And never forget who you are. The High Holidays are the Lost City where you can find yourself again. You are so hard on yourself. Enough. Forgive yourself, forgive the mistakes you’ve made, hit your heart and say you’re sorry, and hit your heart and get it pumping again.
Through all your ups and downs, through divorce and grief and unemployment and disappointments with the people you love, through the broken friendships, through the dreams that never were fulfilled, there is a better you, a hopeful, optimistic you who strives.
But you’ve lost that you, you’ve lost touch with that you.
Remember who you are. You are that kid who was going to be someone, a really good person, a person who did for others. You can still find yourself in the Lost City where your better self is waiting for you. You’re better than the couch potato you’ve turned into, who only lives for the next beer and tonight’s tv shows and going out for another bite to eat. You’re better than that; you’re more than that.
G-d knows you’re better than that. And on these High Holidays, He’s here to remind you, who you really are.