Greater Washington Coalition for Jewish Life

Rabbi’s Blog

 

July 2021

Dear Coalition Community,

This past week, I had the chance to go to see the musical Hamilton while it was playing at the Bushnell in Hartford. It was a really joyful experience and a much-needed break during this incredibly busy summer season. More importantly, it was a chance to reflect on this piece of American culture, talk about an American hero that seems to be under-represented in American lore, and see how the story of America’s founding is influenced by the music and culture of spoken word and hip hop – things that are decidedly not the same as old white men with wigs.

My favorite song in the show, “One Last Time” is a song that President Washington sings as he reflects on his tenure as President and tells Secretary Hamilton that he does not intend to run for reelection to a third term. In it, he quotes a verse from Micah 4:4 that says: 

Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid

Although every founding father had their own idea of what America would become, Washington’s vision, which Lin-Manuel Miranda pulled from Washington’s actual farewell address, is one where America is free, where all citizens live without fear, and where we see the peace of transitions of power. A president can return to sit under their own vine and fig tree and leave behind the fanfare of office.

This phrase, “vine and fig tree,” appears several times in the Hebrew Bible – in Micah and also in Kings and Zechariah. It actually appears in President Washington’s writings even more frequently – showing up nearly 50 times! And I get it. I love this verse! One of the most famous uses of this verse is actually from Washington’s letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Rhode Island, one of America’s earliest synagogues. In it, he writes, “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants – while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” This use of vine and fig tree is particularly important because the reference reinforces America’s core principle of freedom of religion and Washington’s own ecumenical leanings in his use of a Hebrew biblical verseto a Jewish communal institution.

This past month has felt like a lot. Between mass shootings, Supreme Court decisions, hearings in Congress connected to the January 6th insurrection, and in so many other ways big and small. It is easy to feel like we are slipping out of control. Instead, I invite you to take in Washington’s words – and the words of our Hebrew Bible – which offer a pathway towards calm and quiet reflection. I would not argue that everything is perfect. And yet, I do believe that there is a lot of good in this world, and a lot of possibility in our country. As we reflect on our upcoming Independence Day, I hope that you are able to sit under your own vine and fig tree, take a moment alone in the shade, and reflect on this nation that our ancestors built for us, that we have inherited, and that we are continuing to improve for the sake of our children and their children.

Kol Tuv (Be Well),

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Rabbi James