“We Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

On July 4th 1776, the Continental Congress adopted a statement written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, known as the United States Declaration of Independence. This document announced that the thirteen American colonies were now at war with King George III of Great Britain, and no longer wished to be part of the British Empire.

One of the best known sentences in the English language, and among the most “potent and consequential words in American history,” is the sweeping statement of individual rights contained in the second sentence of the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Of course, not everybody in the Thirteen Colonies believed that all people were created equal. In fact, less than a hundred years later, the “United” States was engaged in the terrible Civil War, fought over whether slavery should be forbidden throughout the country.

Notwithstanding, the uniqueness of the Declaration of Independence, the idea that certain concepts and ideas are truly “self-evident,” is not an original Jeffersonian concept.

The Torah is filled with concepts and ideas that are considered self-evident. Perhaps the earliest of the “self-evident” concepts found in the Torah is the pronouncement that all human beings are created in the image of G-d and that all are created equal. In Genesis 1:27 we read: “Vah’yiv’rah Eh’lo’kim eht hah’ah’dahm b’tzal’moh, b’tzelem Eh’lo’kim bah’rah oh’toh,” G-d created the human being in His image, in the image of G-d, He created him [the human being].

The Mishnah, in Sanhedrin 37a, commenting on the story of creation, states: “Therefore was the first human being created alone, to promote peace among men, that one might not be able to say to his fellow, ‘My father was greater than your father.’”

We hold these truths to be self-evident.

Another “self-evident” idea, is articulated boldly in our holy Scriptures in a portion of the Torah that is recited at least twice a day by observant Jews. The words in Deuteronomy 6:7 read: “V’shee’nan’tahm l’vah’neh’chah,” And you shall teach your children.

The Torah dramatically declares that every parent is obligated to teach their children. It is primarily the parents’ responsibility to teach their children–not the nanny, not the tutor, not the hired teacher. Of course, if the parent is not qualified to teach certain cognitive skills, a professional may be hired to do so. But, still, the ultimate responsibility rests upon the parent. Thus, if the teachers fail to fulfill their obligations properly, it is the failure of the parents, not the teachers, not the principal, not the school. Judaism boldly declares that the buck stops with the parents.

It is, therefore, little wonder then, that because of the obsessive value they place on education, Jews have always been among the most highly educated people on Earth.

We hold these truths to be self-evident.

Another revolutionary concept that Judaism introduced to the world is the idea of a “day of rest,” the Shabbat. Just as the Al-mighty rested on the seventh day after working for six days, so must the human being. Just as the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt and were released, so does every person need to be released from their own personal “servitude,” their frenetic life-routines, in order to taste the spiritual side of life, and restore their spent souls. Long before contemporary society started speaking about “quality time,” Judaism knew that there is really no substitute for the “quantity time,” which makes “quality time” possible. Human beings need “sacred time” in order to provide balance to their lives. In order to maintain the proper equilibrium, families must celebrate together and have mandated meals together without outside interruptions from the internet, iPods, iPads, Twitter and Facebook.

As I have often stated (half in jest, of course), if I had an opportunity to speak with President Obama, I would tell our President that if he truly wishes to address 85% of the ills that afflict our country, he should instruct Congress to legislate Shabbat: Friday for the Muslims, Saturday for the Jews, Sunday for the Christians. Families must have sacred time. Each of us needs to rid our minds and bodies of the physical and spiritual waste that collects during the week, to begin afresh, without the mercenary and material motives that frequently drive us. We need to regenerate our souls with pure love, for the sake of love and nothing else.

We hold these truths to be self-evident.

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus (1944-2001, an American born rabbinic scholar who served as the Chief Rabbi and head of the Yeshiva of Ofakim, Israel) in his brilliant exposition on the Torah, entitled Tiferet Shimshon, explains how “self-evident” is the concept of Lashon Harah, of not speaking evil, that is found in this week’s parasha. The Torah, in Leviticus 14:2 states: “Zoht tee’yeh Toraht ha’m’tzorah,” This shall be the law of the person who is stricken with tzaraat (leprosy).

Through a deft play on words, the Midrash in Vayikra Rabba 16:2 explains that the Torah speaks, not of a physical dermatological ailment, but rather of a spiritual malady. When interpreting the verse: “And this shall be the law of the m’tzorah,” the Midrash regards the word “m’tzorah” as an acronym for “motzee shaym rah,” speaking evil, which is the cause of the skin ailment.

The Midrash tells of a merchant who traveled from city to city, who constantly declared: “Come, purchase the potion of life!” Rabbi Yanai called out to the merchant, declaring his intention to buy some of the “potion of life.” The merchant said to him, “You (a man of such great stature), does not require this potion.” Rabbi Yanai persisted. The merchant then took out the Book of Psalms and showed Rabbi Yanai the verses (Psalms 34:13-15): “Mee hah’eesh heh’chah’faytz chaim…?” Who is the man who truly desires life, loving each day to see good? “N’tzohr l’shohn’chah may’rah,” guard your tongue from speaking evil…, “Soor may’rah va’ah’say tov,” desist from evil and do good.

The rabbis note, that after the encounter between Rabbi Yanai and the merchant, Rabbi Yanai said to his learned friends, “All my life, I have been reading this verse, and never understood its basic meaning, until this merchant came to me and told me what ‘mee hah’eesh heh’chah’faytz chaim’ really means.”

There are many elementary things, true basics of life, that are perfectly clear and self-evident. Though we see and hear these ideas and concepts all the time, we often fail to recognize them. In fact, each time we hear them, we often react with surprise and excitement as though we are hearing them for the first time. Of course, Rabbi Yanai was familiar with the verses, but he was so excited to hear this unique interpretation.

The failure to recognize well-known concepts is not limited to those who have never had the opportunity to learn. Even great scholars, perhaps because they are filled with wisdom, often display genuine excitement when they hear the basics explained to them in a unique way.

It is these feelings of excitement and exhilaration that Jews attempt to achieve on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Even though we have been through the Teshuva experience many times, we seek to create an emotional revolution in our lives. The same should be true, not only for all Jewish holidays, but also for the feelings that we experience every Shabbat, and every time we read the Shema. We must seek to create a revolution in our own selves, a revolution of understanding and of spiritual awareness. After each Shabbat experience we must ask ourselves if we properly appreciated the Shabbat as much as we should have? After reciting the “Shema,” we must carefully examine whether we truly realized that the L-rd is really One, and make certain that all our deeds have been for the sake of Heaven.

When the Torah declares, “Zoht tee’yeh Toraht ha’m’tzorah,” this is the law of the “m’tzorah,” of not speaking evil, it is in effect a Declaration of Jewish Independence. It is our declaration that “these truths are self-evident,” that we must care about the next person as much as we care about ourselves, that we must desist from hurting others with our tongues, with our actions, with our words, and with our deeds.

The Jewish revolution took place, not three hundred years ago, but over thirty three hundred years ago, and continues every single day of our lives. It is up to us to remain forever faithful to this vital movement.

May you be blessed.