Home Digital Content Library “Frederick Douglass” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings
Blog post

“Frederick Douglass” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

July 1, 2022 | 2 Tamuz 5782

Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

Last week I sent you my 312th Shabbat Awakenings. For the last six years, each week I have shared with you lessons, interpretations, commentary, and personal reflections. In the upcoming year, the seventh year of my being Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel, I plan to bring back some of my favorites each week. This week in honor of July 4th and the emotions and concerns we may feel about certain decisions affecting our country, I bring back a piece I wrote that lifts up the words of Frederick Douglass for inspiration.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, [sic] promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Such are the foundational ideas that began this country. As we sit on the eve of the celebration of our independence, it is a worthy endeavor to consider their meaning, but not in a vacuum and certainly not without the consideration of the world in which they lived and the one we do now. One particular phrase stands out like a flashing light of caution: “…secure the Blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…” They lived in a world where some received the blessing of liberty but many certainly did not. Therefore, in order to consider the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, it is necessary to contemplate another document written 65 years after the ratification of the Constitution but before the addition of the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except for those imprisoned through the conviction of a crime.

Frederick Douglass, the former slave, abolitionist, prolific writer, and defender of civil rights, delivered a speech given at Rochester, New York, July 5, 1852 entitled, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.”

I am grateful to our member, Joe Bower, who drew my attention to this particular speech.

Douglass lifted up the courage that the founding fathers asserted.

They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was “settled” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were “final”; not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation…

With eloquent and poignant prose, Douglass wove an argument for the abolition of slavery juxtaposed against the backdrop for the reason for the Fourth of July.

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages…

He implored his listeners to abhor the slave trade, the flesh mongers, and the outright inhumanity that filled the streets. How could it be possible for the institution of slavery to blatantly contradict the Constitution?

In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but interpreted, as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gate way? Or is it in the temple? It is neither…

Frederick Douglass concluded with hope that the meaning of the Preamble and all that followed it would pave the way for true blessings of liberty and our posterity. He believed true freedom must emerge out of the founding documents.

As we enter Shabbat to imagine a more perfect existence, we recall the promise of a vision of a more perfect union presented by our forebears. They bequeathed to us an ideal that every person regardless of skin color, socio-economic status, place of birth, gender or sexual identity or religious association must receive those blessings equally. We are far from there and we need to persevere to get there. It is the ultimate promised land.

Shabbat Shalom!

(originally sent on July 3, 2020)

Connect with me here. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

If you are interested in participating in the Psalm prayer project for Hayim Oren please connect with Amy Sherr. Read the invitation to participate here.

  • We join together at 6:00 p.m., onsite and online for Qabbalat Shabbat. Join on Zoom, on Facebook Live, or stream on our website.
  • Tot Rock Shabbat gathers online at 5:00 p.m.
  • Torah Study begins at 9:00 a.m. To join the conversation interactively, access Zoom. You can also watch on Temple Israel’s website or Facebook page.
  • Thank Goodness It’s Shabbat will begin at 10:00 a.m. onsite.
  • Gather for Havdalah and spiritual connection as we say goodbye to Shabbat and welcome the new week! Join on Zoom.