“Is not this the fast I choose? To loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke?”
July 4th in America is a day off work. It is typically observed with fireworks and barbeques. While Memorial Day may be the time when public pools open and traditionalists take out their summer whites, the weather usually does not signal summer until early July, when the heat is in full swing.
As a kid who grew up on the Jersey Shore, we had fireworks off the Boardwalk every Friday night. On July 4th, the township ramped up the number and intensity of them. Fireworks are always magical, gifts in the sky that are as ephemeral as they are luminous. As a child, I was entranced. As an adult, I feel the same way.
I wondered when the “minhag” or custom of fireworks developed across the United States. According to various web sources (never trust those), the Chinese invented fireworks between 960 and 1279 BCE, and the famous traveler Marco Polo brought them to Europe in the early medieval period. They are a beautiful export, but why are they associated with Independence Day?
Apparently, on July 8th, 1776, fireworks were displayed publically as a way of mocking the British, who used fireworks prominently in the birthday and celebratory parties made for kings and queens. By lighting them in colonies that had broken away and were seeking independence from the British, the American fledgling government was effectively saying to their own: “We will have our own victories on this side of the Atlantic” or suggesting that fireworks should be displayed upon the death of the British monarch. The following year on July 4th, fireworks were used again – this time in Philadelphia - to mark independence along with cannon blasts and other ear-shattering noises. From that year onward, cities across America spread the custom, and in 1941, July 4th became an official American holiday.
Fireworks are great for celebrations, but they last for a very short time. They burst in the sky and disappear. Not so freedom. And, in truth, it is freedom – hard-earned and fought for – which we must take a moment to recognize today.
In Jewish life, freedom almost never stands on its own. It is almost always paired with a “to;” what do we have freedom to do? It is never for the sake of freedom alone. When the firework display is over, what will you do with your freedom? The prophet Isaiah boldly makes a suggestion above. Use your freedom to bring freedom to others. Loosen the straps of oppression, remove the yoke. You know that feeling of carrying something really heavy that you cannot remove alone? Consider the moment when someone else relieves you and physically lifts the burden off you. The weight brought you down. The freedom brings you up. You stretch and sigh with relief and then you are grateful for the presence of those who helped you. Be that one who brings relief, Isaiah implores.
Isaiah understands freedom as the reason we fast, to oppress ourselves in some small way so that we understand what a burden feels like. When you are full, it is hard to remember what it was like to be hungry. We never take our freedoms for granted. And the prophet continues in the same chapter: “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house... (58:7)
This year, let’s add to the celebration by going to a shelter or giving charity to those who are vulnerable. It is time for a custom of meaning on this day because homelessness is a form of oppression. Hunger is a form of oppression. Domestic abuse and poverty are forms of oppression. Let freedom ring because we bring a little hope to those under a yoke. Bring a sliver of independence to others this Independence Day.
Happy 4th and Shabbat Shalom