On Nov. 19, 1863, with 270 words and in slightly more than two minutes, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. Although he stated, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here,” those words were only partially prophetic. Yes, we remember the Battle of Gettysburg and the men who died there, but the world has noted and will long remember what he said there.
Nov. 19, 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. To mark this anniversary, filmmaker Ken Burns has made a documentary called “The Address,” about boys with language-based learning disabilities who attend the Greenwood School in Vermont. In the 30 years that the school has been in existence, every boy has had to study, memorize and recite the Gettysburg Address in front of the entire school. Headmaster Stewart Miller said, “Once you memorize a speech like this, you own it, it is in your heart; it remains a part of you forever … it is a transformative experience with its messages of perseverance, unity and dedicating oneself to a greater struggle.”
Burns has raised a challenge to the people of the United States and presumably any person in the world who is moved by the message of the Gettysburg Address. In what he is calling “the greatest mass memorization in history,” he is asking that we memorize or re-memorize the Gettysburg Address in celebration of its ever current messages of hope, determination, commitment, common struggle and accord.
I was asked to be part of a local recitation of the address. The line I was assigned by chance happens to be one of my personal favorites, “But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow this ground.” What meaning do I find in this line? What Torah speaks to me from these words? Lincoln was giving a true teaching; how could he or anyone presume to dedicate, consecrate or hallow the ground where over 50,000 men lost their lives in those three days in July 1863? Yet he came to dedicate that ground as a cemetery, as a memorial to those honored dead. It remains hallowed ground to this day.
My Torah about my line in the Gettysburg Address is this: G-d called out to Moshe saying, “Take your shoes off of your feet, for the place upon which you are standing is admat kodesh hu; it is holy ground.” In a larger sense, every single day we can “take our shoes off of our feet” and recognize that the ground upon which we stand is waiting for us to dedicate, consecrate and make it holy through our actions, our words and our deeds. The place where each of us is “standing” in our lives is the place that requires our attention; the place from which we call out to the Holy One, “Hineini, here I am; I am here! I have come to do the holy work that only I can do.” Now is not the time for despair or discouragement; now is the time to “be dedicated here, to the unfinished work which they who fought there have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us …”
Each one of us has great work to do, noble undertakings, mitzvot upon which our names are inscribed. Hineinu; we are here!
My line in the Gettysburg Address was assigned to me and I will do the same for my friend of blessed memory, Mitch Dorson, loving father to Elana and Noah, Jewish educator extraordinaire, scholar and teacher of history with special devotion to the history of the United States, amazing son and brother, friend and favorite nudge to thousands! Mitch, if you were alive today, you would already have assigned every student in your classroom and as many former students as you could find to memorize the Gettysburg Address. You would have written and e-mailed Ken Burns and kept him abreast of your progress and on Nov. 19, 2013, we would have gathered together and raised up our hearts, our minds, and our voices in one unified, magnificent delivery of the address. Mitch, this is your line, “… that this nation, under G-d, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that this government, of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from this earth.” We are still here, Mitch, doing your holy work. On Nov. 19, I will dedicate my recitation of the address to you and your unending dedication to our country and to the Jewish people.
Anyone who would like to join me on Nov. 19 in reciting the Gettysburg Address, please contact me at [email protected].