Independence is an American virtue. This country was built up by pioneers who left their familiar ways behind. They sought a new life free of the old dependencies. How do all the famous Western films end? With John Wayne riding off, alone, into the sunset.
Yet, independence is only half the story. Interdependence–shared sacrifice and responsibility–made America possible. George Washington would not have crossed the Delaware without his troops. The civil rights movement would not have succeeded if it were only about African Americans.
A saying printed on our currency captures this more complex truth: E Pluribus Unum, “Out of the many, one.” We are unique individuals who, together, form a stronger union.
The Smartest Man in the World Believed in Interdependence
When we acknowledge our interdependence, we recognize the influence others have on us. Albert Einstein captured this truth when he observed “A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of others, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have been received and am receiving.”
To picture this truth, imagine turning on a water faucet. It seems simple, but to get that glass of water, we depend on plumbers, chemists, engineers, upon the manufacturers of pipes and spigots, and also on the people who build the reservoirs, water meters and generators.
One of the great achievements of the environmental movement is that it has helped make us more aware of the ethical and global implication of the work that goes into producing the food we eat, the coffee we drink and clothes we buy. We depend on others, and with that dependence comes a sense of responsibility.
As Einstein put it, “I must expert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have been received and am receiving.” Interdependence is built into creation, and recognizing it is critical to our survival.
Interdependence is Rooted in the Bible’s Creation Story
The Bible conveys this truth in the story of Adam and Eve. We have to be attuned to the original Hebrew to see it. When Adam awakens from his sleep and meets Eve he says, “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh: She shall be called woman: isha for she was taken from man ish.” (Genesis 2:23)
This is the first time the Hebrew words ish and isha are used. Before this verse, we had only heard the words Adam and Eve. Even though we use them as proper names in English, Adam and Eve are not personal names in Hebrew. They are the equivalent of John and Jane Doe.
“I” Cannot Exist Without “You”
The words ish and isha are more specific and meaningful. They connote a human with personality, character and depth. They cannot be used until the world has more than one person.
The Bible conveys this in a very subtle way. Adam calls himself ish only after he calls Eve isha. He has to pronounce Eve’s proper name before he can say his own. Ish cannot exist with isha. We cannot exist without one another. Or, as Martin Buber put it, we have to say “Thou” before we can say “I.”
In Judaism, there is no such thing as the totally independent, unattached individual. We are born into, and we gain our character and sense of self from the people and community to which we attach our lives.
On this July 4th, let us celebrate this interdependence.
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