Shabbat Bo/An Open Letter to the President (Shabbat Sermon 1-22-2021)
I’ve made it a little bit of a habit to write an open letter to the new president on the Shabbat following an Inauguration, offering words of advice and insight from Jewish tradition. And so I’d like to share with you my letter to President Biden (and maybe I’ll even send it to him!).
Dear President Biden,
Mazel tov on your inauguration as our nation’s president. I am a big fan of American civic religion and its ceremonies, so I greatly enjoyed all of the components of Inauguration Day. The ritual itself was meaningful and well-executed. The words of Amanda Gorman continue to ring in my ears. I was tempted to just read her poem as my sermon this week. Having just moved to Northern Virginia in August after growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, and serving pulpits in Massachusetts and New Jersey, this is the closest I have ever physically been to an Inauguration. I even looked out my front door that night to see if I could catch a glimpse of the spectacular fireworks display in the distance, but, alas, Burke, Virginia is a little too far away. Maybe next time!
As you begin your term, I imagine that you inundated with advice and recommendations. I’d like to share with you three teachings from Jewish tradition that I hope you will take to heart. They speak to the type of leader I feel we need as a nation right now.
The first comes from the Torah portion that is read in Jewish communities around the world this Shabbat. Parashat Bo is in the Book of Exodus, containing the final plagues visited upon Egypt before Pharaoh freed the Israelite slaves. In the midst of the narrative, we are told that Pharaoh’s heart is “hardened” and “stiffened.” These two Hebrew verbs connote his inability to recognize the humanity of the Israelites and treat them as human being. We take from this the warning not to be like Pharaoh, with a hardened and stiffened heart.
Interestingly, the verbs used can also have other meanings. The verb “to harden” has as its root the Hebrew letters kaf, vav, dalet, which has a core meaning of “heavy” or “weight.” It is also connected for the word and verb, “honor” or “respect.” The verb “to stiffen” has as its root the Hebrew letters chet, zayin, koof, which has a core meaning of “strength.” Had Pharaoh not hardened his heart, but used it to honor or respect the Israelites, had Pharaoh not stiffened his heart, but used it to strengthen their relationship, the calamities that befell the Egyptians might not have been necessary.
Mr. President, we pray for you to have a heart that is filled with respect for all of God’s creatures and honor for the spark of God that resides within each person. We pray for you to have a heart strengthened with determination to act with kindness and goodness.
A second teaching comes from the First Book of King, chapter three, and it concerns the paradigm of wise rulers, King Solomon. God appears to King Solomon in a dream at night and asks Solomon, “What shall I grant you?” Solomon is concerned with his lack of experience and the vast number of people he is supposed to rule. He asks for “an understanding heart (lev shomea) to govern [the] people, to distinguish between good and bad” (1 Kings 3:9). God is pleased with this request, noting that Solomon could have asked for long life, for riches, for success over his enemies, but instead asked for discernment in dispensing justice. So God grants him lev chacham v’navon, a “wise and discerning heart” (1 Kings 3:12).
The word lev is usually translated as “heart.” But, for the ancients, the heart was not the center of emotion, it was the center of thought. An “understanding heart” (lev shomea) or a “wise and discerning heart” (lev chacham v’navon) really meant a mind that was open, compassionate, wise, and fair. Solomon is concerned with ruling justly. He wants to ensure that right and wrong are clear values in his realm. He wants to know the right thing to do.
Mr. President, we pray for you to have a mind that is attuned to the call of justice. We pray for you to have a mind that discerns what is fair and what is right. We pray for you to govern justly.
A third teaching from Jewish tradition dates back to the time of the rabbinic sages in the first century of the Common Era. The leading figure of the time, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, asked his students what one would need to be on the best path of life to follow. His students reported back. Rabbi Eliezer said, “A good eye,” meaning the ability to see the good qualities in other people. Rabbi Joshua said, “A good companion,” meaning the ability to be a good friend, with compassion and caring. Rabbi Yossi said, “A good neighbor,” referring those who positively impact us in our immediacy, knowing that the more “neighbor” groups there are, the better the world will be. Rabbi Shimon said, “foresight,” meaning the ability to know the results of one’s actions and therefore plan accordingly to do good. And Rabbi Elazar ben Arach said, “A good heart,” a lev tov. Rabban Yochanan said to them, “I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach, for included in his words are all of yours.” (Based on Pirkei Avot 2:9).
Having a lev tov, a good heart, means looking at others through the lens of goodness, seeing their best qualities, not their worst. It means being a person of compassion and decency, who is a positive influence on others. It means knowing that our words and deeds have consequences, and therefore choosing them carefully to minimize harm and maximize goodness. Having a good heart is about being a mensch. Mr. President, we pray that you may always be blessed with a good heart.
In offering these three teachings, and in praying for you to have a lev shomea (an understanding heart), a lev chacham v’navon (a wise and discerning heart) and a lev tov (a good heart), I don’t mean, even for a second, to imply that these are qualities you currently lack! Rather, I pray that these qualities may be enhanced and enriched in you.
May they guide you as you undertake the momentous challenge and opportunity of governing our nation.
May you lead by example, with clear vision and true values.
May you help our country strive always to be a land of righteousness and fairness, with liberty and justice for all.
Mr. President, post-COVID, you are welcome to come by the congregation any time. Northern Virginia isn’t that far away. And we Zoom our worship every Friday night. We’d be glad to send you the link. Or I’m happy to come visit you, maybe at the White House Chanukah party!
Wishing you, and our nation, great success now and always.
Rabbi David S. Widzer