On Thursday of this week, I was pleased to participate in the formal kickoff of our adult education season in tandem with Temple Shaarei Shalom. Rabbi Fratello and Cantor Bain from Shaarei Shalom, and Cantor Mondrow and I each reflected on different aspects on the state of American Jewry today against the backdrop of two monumental anniversaries in America this week. On November 19, we marked the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Yesterday, November 22, we marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas. The coincidental proximity of these anniversaries may have lent fuel to those who suggest that there must have been some cosmic, pre-ordained connection between these two slain Presidents. It’s easy to get caught up in the trivia that they were both shot in the head on a Friday, that they were each succeeded by Johnson and that Kennedy’s secretary was named Evelyn Lincoln. I think we would be better off reflecting on who these men were, why they were important and how we might strive to carry on with their unfinished work.
In recalling two momentous events in American history, it’s worthy first to explore a momentous event in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Vayeshev. The parashah begins with the ironic statement that Jacob had settled down in the land where his fathers wandered. Based on what happens next, nothing is settled about daily life in the house of Jacob. Jacob showers favor upon Joseph, son of his favorite wife, Rachel. he presents him with a k’tonet passim, a striped, or, perhaps, “technicolor” coat. The favoritism naturally created a rift between Joseph and his brothers. Joseph’s arrogant personality did not help to assuage the tension. One day when the brothers are away, Jacob sends Joseph to find them and see how they’re doing. What a fateful mistake that was. Or was it?
On his way towards Shechem (Genesis 37:15), Joseph meets a man who says basically he saw them and they went “thataway” towards Dothan. Joseph finds his brothers. They pounce on him, nearly kill him, and ultimately sell him into slavery.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, who is coming to Temple Torah on January 15 (and you should all buy tickets), writes in his Torah commentary about this mysterious man on the road who meets Joseph.
“We never hear of this man again,” he writes. “Yet if Joseph had not met him, he never would have been sold into slavery. The family would not have followed him into Egypt. There would have been no Exodus. The history of the world would have been so different! Could that man have known how his chance encounter changed history? Do we ever know the consequences of the little acts of thoughtfulness we perform?”
Each one of us may be that man or woman on the road that knowingly or unknowingly profoundly influences the life of someone else. Knowing that, our task in life is to try to do so with positive energy and intentionality. This week, we pause to reflect two giant historical leaders, President Lincoln and President Kennedy. There may be coincidental similarities between the two, but they served with great purpose and intentionality. Without their leadership, the world as we know it might be a very different place.
For Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address is a masterpiece not only for its brilliant, concise rhetoric, but also for stating in clear terms Lincoln’s vision of his lasting legacy, the end of slavery and the defense of the union. Had Lincoln not entered the historical stage, how would America have evolved from its status quo in the mid-1800s? Would there even be a single United States of America? We can only speculate, but we know our world is different because Lincoln lived. As we reflect on the meaning of Lincoln this week, let me share all 272 words of the Gettysburg Address:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
For Kennedy, his term was shorter and his legacy less clear-cut but still significant. The Cold War weighed heavily on the mood of the time of his inauguration. His rhetoric that day acknowledged the national stress, and inspired principled leadership of the free world. He said: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
During his term, he averted nuclear catastrophe during the Cuban missile crisis. He went to Berlin and inspired the people in this enclave of democracy stuck in the midst of Communist East Germany that freedom and democracy were precious and necessary. Back at home, he laid the groundwork for the sweeping Civil Rights legislation that his successor President Johnson would sign into law. On June 11, 1963, during the desegregation of the University of Alabama, President Kennedy said: “If an American, because the color of his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public schools available, if he cannot vote for those public officials that represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?
“I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”
Finally, President Kennedy channeled his magnetic charisma to inspire a generation of Americans to think beyond their personal wants and desires and to serve their nation. The Peace Corps is one product of that legacy. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” are his immortal words from his inauguration that continue to resonate today.
Had Kennedy not served as President, what would our world look like today? Would we have experienced nuclear war? Would we have put astronauts on the moon? We can only speculate, but certainly our world is different because President Kennedy lived.
In reflecting this week on these two fallen Presidents, we can think about that man on the road to Shechem whom Joseph encounters. He’s a reminder to us that our words and our actions matter. Anything we do or say can have a profound effect on the lives of others and even to affect the course of history. Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy were great statesmen who channeled powerful oratory and deft leadership skills towards serving our nation and making our world a bit better. Their lives were both tragically cut short, and their work was unfinished. It is up to each of us to see ourselves as that “person on the road to Shechem” who can change the world. May we be blessed to make the world a bit brighter and better.