G-d Bless America – Memorial Day 2014
The people of the United States of American have just observed Memorial Day, which commemorates the sacrifices of the many brave soldiers who died in defense of the United States and its values. I think that it is, therefore, appropriate to reflect briefly on the blessings of the USA. Abraham’s relationship with God was rooted in a covenant, an agreement between two parties, each having obligations toward the other. Abraham and his descendants were obligated to practice circumcision, kindness and justice and to have faith in God. God in turn promised that Abraham’s descendants would maintain a special relationship with Him. They would be given the Land of Israel and would be a “blessing to all nations of the world” (Genesis 22:18). God further assured Abraham that “I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you, I will curse.” (Ibid. 12:3) It is interesting to see how this blessing has played out through our history.
The Jewish people really started off as a family, the twelve sons of Jacob, their wives and their children, who sought refuge from a famine in Canaan (Israel) by going to Egypt. Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph later saved Egypt from famine and turned it into the bread-basket of the region. Egypt accepted the family of Joseph into its midst and settled them in Goshen. Egypt had begun to experience the benefit of the blessings of Abraham. After a time, however, Egypt started to enslave the Jewish people and oppress them. Eventually, God invoked His promise to Abraham and brought ten plagues on Egypt, drowned their army in the Red Sea and took the Jewish people out of slavery. Egypt went into a decline at this period, about the 1300 BCE, and eventually ceased to be a world power.
After the revelation at Sinai, the Jews returned to Canaan where, about 440 years later, King Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem. During the era of Solomon, Israel enjoyed peaceful relations with its neighbors. Some, like King Hiram of Tyre in Lebanon even sent donations for the building of the Temple. (Kings I, Ch. 5) Other kings sent offering to be sacrificed in the Temple and people of every rank sought wisdom and connection to God in Jerusalem. (Kings I, Chs. 9-10) This was one of the only times in history when peace reigned in the Middle East. The entire region was blessed, a result, I believe of their good relationship with the descendants of Abraham.
In about 600 BCE the kingdom of Assyria became the greatest military power of the region and invaded Israel, exiling the ten northern tribes. Senacherib, king of Assyria, besieged the city of Jerusalem. One night a plague suddenly descended on his troops killing thousands. Senacherib abandoned the siege and returned to Assyria, where he was soon killed by his sons. Thus began the decline of Assyria and the rise of Babylon. Under King Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and exiled the Jews to Babylon (modern day Iraq). Rather than persecuting the exiles, however, they gave the Jewish people a great degree of autonomy and freedom of religion. Many were even incorporated into the government. The Jewish people flourished in Babylon and built great academies of learning, which hundreds of year later produced the Babylonian Talmud. The Babylonians did eventually begin to oppress the Jewish people and soon thereafter were conquered by the Medeans and then the Persians. The Persian king Cyrus gave the Jewish people permission to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple in the city of Jerusalem. Throughout his reign Cyrus blessed the Jews and the Persian Empire was, in turn, blessed by economic, military and cultural successes.
The next great empire on the scene was that of Alexander of Macedon, who like others, also invaded Israel. Alexander did not, however, destroy the Temple. Alexander was benevolent toward the Jews, to the extent that since his reign, Jews have adopted Alexander as a Jewish name which can be given to a boy at his circumcision. In return, Alexander experienced unprecedented military success. After his death, Alexander’s empire broke up into a number of states and one of them, the Greek-Syrians under Antiochus Epiphanies, invaded Israel and tried to forcibly Hellenize the Jewish people. This precipitated the Maccabean revolt against Greek rule and re-established Jewish monarchy in Israel until the Roman invasion. From that point, Greece began to decline, was usurped by the Roman Empire and ceased to be the philosophical, scientific and artistic powerhouse of the world as it previously had been. Since that time, Greece has remained a minor player in economic and cultural arenas. Again, the blessing towards those who bless and the curse on those who curse was manifested in the course of history.
Rome was the next nation to invade Israel and attempt to incorporate it into its empire. The Jews revolted three times against Roman rule. The third revolt was squashed by the Roman legions and culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Under Constantine, Rome became the Holy Roman Empire, the Rome/Byzantium split occurred and Constantine forbade Jews to enter the city of Jerusalem.
As a result of Roman exile many Jews migrated to France, Britain, Rome, Greece and other parts of Europe. Most Jews however, lived in the Middle East and North Africa under Arab-Moslem rule. In general, the Jews received better treatment under the Moslems than under the Christians. Moslems regarded the Jews as a protected, tolerated minority. Dhimmis, although considered of lower status than Moslems, were nevertheless able to pursue their religion. Jewish philosophers wrote major works in Arabic, the language of close to 90% of the Jews. Maimonides and others quoted from and debated with Arab philosophers. The Arab empires became powerful militarily, were successful in conquest, created the first universities, wrote works of philosophy and poetry and blossomed culturally. The Arab-Moslems became a dominant force in the world, and enjoyed the blessing of Abraham for hundreds of years.
The Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) was a center of Jewish population during this period and home to many of the greatest Jewish scholars — Maimonides, Nachmanides, Judah Halevi, and Don Isaac Abarbanel to name a few. When these areas came under Christian domination, a period of horror ensued for the Jewish population. Persecution, torture, pogroms and discrimination culminated finally in the Spanish Inquisition under Queen Isabella. In 1492 the Jews were given the choice of leaving Spain, becoming Christians or being burnt at the stake. Most chose exile and traveled overland to Europe or jammed onto rotting old ships. Some succeeded in reaching other countries, many simply drowned.
Three countries in particular welcomed the Jewish refugees: Holland, Turkey and Poland. Jews established great communities in these countries, produced many scholars and thrived for generations. In turn, Holland prospered and became one of the great maritime nations, famous for its economic and cultural achievements. It controlled territory as far away as Indonesia, and was famous for the Dutch East India Company and artists such as Rembrandt. The Turkish Ottoman Empire also enjoyed tremendous military and economic success and controlled much of the Middle East and the Mediterranean shore. During the same period, Poland also experienced great economic and cultural blessing. In contrast, Spain declined and never recovered its stature as a world power or the greatness that it once had in past.
The Jews were expelled from England in the 13th Century but were allowed to resettle there in the 17th Century by Oliver Cromwell. England subsequently became the world’s superpower, with colonies extending from South Africa to the Americas and from Australia to Hong Kong. English, the language of a small island nation, became the world’s international language, replacing Spanish, French, Latin and Greek. English music, poetry, literature, art and science flourished along with the Jewish community of England, which enjoyed freedom of worship in that country.
Germany, perpetrated one of the most heinous crimes in history, the Holocaust, and was defeated by the Allies. During the process of its defeat, German cities were burnt, its industries bombed into ruin and its population divided into Soviet-controlled East Germany and American-controlled West Germany. Yet, Germany became one of the only nations in Europe to actually confront its anti-Semitic past and the atrocities that it committed against humanity. It became a democracy, gave reparations to the State of Israel and became one of Israel’s closest allies. Thousands of German tourists visit Israel, German volunteers are found on every kibbutz and Mercedes-Benz taxis are everywhere, supplied at cheaper prices as part of reparations. At the same time, Germany has prospered and currently maintains one of the highest standards of living in Europe and a thriving culture and economy.
Jews first came to America as refugees from the Spanish Inquisition who escaped to Brazil. Unfortunately the Inquisition followed them to Brazil and some fled to the Carolinas in North America. In 1763, the Spanish-Portuguese Jews established the first synagogue in North America in Newport, Rhode Island, a synagogue which is still in operation today. In the 19th and 20th centuries the United States became a haven for Jews fleeing the medieval conditions and horrific pogroms of Eastern Europe. Jews enjoy unprecedented freedom of religion, equal rights and economic and educational opportunities in the United States. The United States has become a blessed country, arguably the world’s only superpower, victorious in the Cold War and possessing one of the world’s highest standards of living. The United States has also become a cultural, scientific and artistic center of the world. It appears beyond doubt that the song composed by the Jewish musician Irving Berlin, is a statement of fact as well as a prayer — “G-d Bless America.”