When you look at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, you either see the bell first or the crack first. It is the same with America. You see either our genius as a nation or our flaws. Like the Liberty Bell, both are on clear view in America; it just depends upon which aspect of our national experiment in freedom reaches your soul more deeply.
A prayer for the Liberty Bell and for America: "Dear God, help us to see the bell before the crack. Help us to see our aspirations before we see our failures. Help us to come together as one people in a time and a world and political environment that are tearing us apart. Amen"
The inspiration for the unity I pray for with special fervor in America this Independence Day is inscribed on the bell itself. It is a verse from Leviticus 25:10:
"Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."
Those words and that bell are close to me because I read that verse from that book and that bell on May 21, 1960, the day of my bar mitzvah at Temple Shalom in Fox Point, Wisconsin. Over the years, since I was 13, the symbolic importance of the Liberty Bell has grown in me. A bell is a perfect symbol because its piercing yet lovely sounds cannot be ignored, and because the verse from Leviticus is a perfect summation of our national purpose.
The verse describes the biblical commandment to free slaves and cancel debts every 50 years. For this reason, the Liberty Bell gained iconic importance not because of the Pennsylvania Assembly that commissioned it, but because of the abolitionists who in their efforts to put an end to slavery in America adopted it as a symbol. To slaves in America those words, "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof," were the words of God spoken through the Bible and into their hearts. It was, in fact, the abolitionists who gave it the name "Liberty Bell." Before the Civil War it was simply called the "State House Bell."
There is widespread disagreement about when the first crack appeared on the bell, but there is general agreement that the final expansion of the crack that left the bell incapable of ringing was on George Washington's Birthday in 1846.
My favorite story about the Liberty Bell apparently never happened. In 1847, George Lippard wrote a fictional story for The Saturday Courier about an elderly bellman waiting in the State House steeple for word that Congress had declared independence, though he began to doubt Congress' resolve. But the bellman's grandson, who was listening outside the Congress doors, shouted, "Ring, Grandfather! Ring!" This story captured the imagination of the people so much that the Liberty Bell has been linked to the Declaration of Independence since.
What is true is that just like the crack in the Liberty Bell, the promise of liberty for all the inhabitants of our land is unfinished. But it is still our great national promise … and it is still a bell … and if I had that bell … if I had that bell, dear God … I would ring it in the morning, I'd ring it in the evening all over this land.
Only we do have that bell, and we do have that promise, and we do have this great country of ours that is about to celebrate one more year of freedom.
Let us not be afraid to see the crack but let us never forget to hear the bell.
SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at firstname.lastname@example.org or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.