Birthdays, anniversaries and holidays share this common theme: They are important enough that we stop our daily routine. We note the impact on our lives of that day in history. In many cases, these dates were game-changers involving milestone events or defining ideas.
There are many calendars, and the most common is the Gregorian, the one that governs life in America. The Jewish people observe the Gregorian calendar, based on the sun's cycle and the basis of secular life. And we also observe the Jewish calendar, based on the lunar cycle and the basis of all Jewish holidays.
Thus, a holiday or anniversary on the Hebrew (lunar) calendar will often fall on a different date on the Gregorian (solar) calendar each year. This explains why people will say, "Wow, Chanukah is really so early or so late this year" as they compare those eight days in relation to the time the secular New Year is celebrated.
As the American people prepare to celebrate the birth of the nation's independence, there is also a special day on the Jewish calendar that comes about the same time. This is the anniversary of the physical passing of a great man and leader in our times, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known to many simply as "the Rebbe."
The Rebbe fled from the Nazis in the late 1930s while suffering the loss of close family members who were not able to escape the horrors of the war. He was a prolific scholar of the Torah (the Bible) and a celebrated mystic. With his wife and partner Chaya Mushka, the Rebbe arrived at the shores of our great country on July 4, 1941.
He immediately began to serve our country. The Rebbe used his expertise as an advanced electrical engineer, and went to work on a Navy shipyard. Simultaneously, he worked tirelessly to help rebuild the lives of the recent immigrants, especially the survivors of Hitler's plot.
As a grandchild of immigrants, I am especially grateful to this great country. My grandparents were among the fortunate ones who were able to flee the terror of the pogroms and other horrors, and be welcomed in a country that would allow them to live freely, without persecution, as observant Jews.
But survival is only a portion of life. It was with the guidance and support of the communal efforts of the Rebbe that together with their growing families, my grandparents were able to begin truly living.
The Rebbe would often describe the United States as "a nation of kindness." The American ideals of freedom of religion and freedom of speech were revolutionary when they were created in a world where tyranny and oppression were the norm.
I see a deep connection between the founding ideals of this country, the celebration of her independence and the teachings of the Rebbe. It is fitting that we celebrate the Fourth of July about the same time this year, as we look toward the legacy of the Rebbe.
The uniqueness of each individual as a creature of G-d gives meaning as we celebrate the independence of each person to pursue his or her destiny. For most of history, that has meant freedom from an all-powerful government. It is no wonder our founders sought to limit what government could do.
To me, the story of the Rebbe is a true tribute to this great country. Where else could a little-known recent arrival from a society of hatred and oppression evolve into a famed world Jewish leader, establishing more than 4,000 centers of light and kindness?
We are all products of something bigger. Each of us—regardless of race, color, creed, ethnic background, religion or even non-religion—plays a pivotal role. It is up to us—that is, up to each individual—to make this planet, and thus our universe, truly shine through our acts of goodness and kindness.
The Rebbe inspired peoples of all faiths and backgrounds to win the daily internal battles. For him, "winning" meant pursing acts of selflessness and becoming messengers of light. Indeed, in his vision, we all need to be living examples to others so that they too would choose to shine.
I recall the advertisement, "You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levi's rye." I feel the same way about the teachings of the Rebbe. His admirers include many.
As we approach this event-filled weekend, I am filled with gratitude.
I am grateful to G-d for allowing me to live in the land of the free and the home of the brave, who defend and even extend freedom.
We cannot enforce virtue, but we can provide the freedom with which to pursue it. Thus, freedom is not an end in itself; it is a means to the end, to be free to strive for goodness.
I am grateful to my Rebbe, who taught me that the gift of freedom is also a great responsibility.
I am proud to be an American!
May G-d bless each of you. And may God bless the United States of America—Happy Fourth!