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A Blessing on His Head

Rabbi YY Jacobson on last week’s salute to the president

H

ow was it that I was given the privilege of introducing President Trump and invoking the brachah for kings and leaders at a luncheon with American Jewish donors?

It all started some two years ago during a Shabbos Hagadol derashah in our shul in Monsey, when I shared with the kehillah how, notwithstanding our many challenges, we are living in extraordinary times. We were given a president who is a staunch friend of Israel and the Jewish people — for which we must thank our Creator and express gratitude to the president.

Never in the past 2,000 years, I said, have the opportunities been greater for us to fulfill the vision we recite thrice daily — “Lesaken olam bemalchus Shakai,” to repair the world under the sovereignty of Hashem. For the first time, we live in a milieu when Jews can serve as moral teachers of mankind, becoming beacons of light, truth, love, and hope. We have the chance to be an outstanding voice in the moral conversations of mankind, and the world is waiting for it.

I spoke of our need to create a paradigm shift in how we perceive Judaism and the Jewish people. Today we can change the world. When a Jew lives an authentic Jewish life, saturated with faith, integrity, yiras Shamayim, ahavas habriyos, joy and love, his or her impact can go viral, and that when you show gratitude to people, they embrace it with enthusiasm.

One man sitting in the audience took the words to heart. He phoned the White House and said that a group of Orthodox Jewish leaders and philanthropists would like to show gratitude to the president of the United States for his dedication to Israel, his resolve against terrorism, and his courage to do what is right even in the face of radical pressure.

This individual, noted askan and baal tzedakah Mr. Leizer Scheiner, was not searching for an “in” to the White House, nor was he seeking business or political networking opportunities. He was inspired by a vision to show hakaras hatov and say “thank you” to a president who deserved it.

And so, two years later, last Tuesday on November 12, 400 Torah observant Jewish philanthropists were gathered at the Barclay Hotel in Manhattan, expressing their appreciation through words and checkbooks.

Mr. Scheiner phoned me a few weeks before and said, “Since you inspired me to do this, I want to ask you to introduce the president.”


Two Meetings

Behind the curtain backstage, I greeted the president, who was flanked by Jared Kushner and yeshivah graduate Avi Berkowitz. As I stood there observing 400 Jews with yarmulkes singing “Ani Maamin” together, my mind traveled back to a very different time, not so long ago, when another 400 Jews with yarmulkes came to meet the president of the United States.

It was October 6, 1943, two days before Yom Kippur. Four hundred rabbis, in their black hats and beards blowing in the wind, marched from the Washington, D.C. railroad station to the White House.

The rabbis knew that two million Jews had already been killed and that millions more would be slaughtered. The knowledge that Hitler was killing the Jews of Europe by industrial extermination was known to the Allies. The rabbis came to plead with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow for an immigration increase to the United States and rescue their Jewish brethren from German death camps.

Yet, at the advice of the President’s Jewish aids, who suggested the protest of the rabbis would stir up anti-Semitism, and furthermore claimed that the Orthodox Jewish marchers were not representative of American Jewry, President FDR refused to meet them and left the White House by a rear door.

I couldn’t help but contrast the two scenes, which inspired my introduction to the president as he stood backstage and watched on a monitor. This is what I said:

Some 40 miles from Auschwitz there is a small polish city called Bochnia. In August 1943, the Germans conducted their final aktzia to transport Jews from Bochnia to Auschwitz.

One child, a six-year-old boy by the name of Aryeh Leib Blum, instinctively felt the need to flee. Both his parents had been murdered already, and he knew he had to escape.

Leibele Blum saw a garbage can in the street. He climbed into it, covered it with the lid, and hid in the heap of garbage.

A Gestapo officer, searching for Jews, with heavy boots and barking dogs, thought maybe someone might be hiding in the garbage. He removed the cover, and sure enough, there was a Jewish child there, Leibele Blum.

Leibele stood up in garbage can and removed from his pocket his most prized possession — a lollipop. Feigning a smile from ear to ear he presented it to the Gestapo officer as a gesture of friendship.

In return, the officer took out his pistol, put it by the head of Leibele Blum, pulled the trigger, and shot one bullet into his head. Leibele fell dead in the garbage can.

This story repeated itself one-and-a-half million times, with one-and-a-half million children, just two mortgages ago — 75 years ago.

This is what our people endured — for millennia.

But despite all odds, we never despaired. We believed with every fiber of our being that the sun will yet rise again, that goodness will prevail. Our mission statement was that verse in Psalms: “Lo amus ki echyeh — I shall not die, but I shall live, and declare the deeds of G-d.”

Thus, words cannot describe how grateful we are to G-d for the fact that today we have in the White House one of the greatest friends ever of the Jewish people!

One of the greatest friends of Israel!

Thank you, Mr. President, thank you.

Mr. President, G-d has chosen you as the leader of the free world. You are charged to stand as the guardian of the great values first articulated in the Torah 3,400 years ago — to respect the Divine image of every human being, to fight evil, and to build a world dedicated to decency and compassion.

The resistance you experience is only because your leadership is so vital and indispensable.

Thank you for not bending to the venomous rhetoric that for decades went without protest.

In Genesis, G-d promised Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you.” You, Mr. President, have blessed Abraham and his heirs. Your leadership has been a blessing to America, to the Jewish people, to Israel, and to the world.

Which is why G-d has blessed you — and will continue to bless you!

At this historic moment of gratitude, millions of G-d-fearing Jews turn to you and say: Fear not to continue to fight for the good and the just, for G-d is with you.

 

How Could You?

Not all my friends and students approved of my introducing and expressing abundant gratitude to President Donald Trump.

One constituent sent me this email:

I’ve always respected you and you kept me on the path of still loving Judaism despite my becoming disillusioned. But when I saw you with Trump, introducing him and singing his praises, I was saddened. Not because of any policy disagreement. That I can handle. But because of Trump’s nastiness, his bigotry, his hurtful ways. It’s not worth mortgaging one’s soul to support a policy.

When Jewish religious leaders give him a hechsher, it says, “Thank you for supporting me. Who cares what you do to other marginalized people? Sell them out for us!” It says we Jews are just as ethically narcissistic as anyone else. It says we are only a light unto ourselves. And that for our  own benefit we are willing to stand behind a person who defies most mussar books and Pirkei Avos. I am very disappointed.

Another constituent had this to say to me:

What a monster chillul Hashem on display! The idol worship of that president is embarrassing and makes me, and many others, despise Jewish leaders like yourself. With your hollow praises it is obvious that you most definitely condone his disgusting behavior. “This magnitude of a great leader,” you said. Think about what you were saying!

And yet a third email:

So hard to believe that you introduced Donald Trump; that you feel this way about a man with no morals, ethics, and who does not know the meaning of the word truth. Jews are so misled about Trump’s support and the support of the conservatives. As I said, it makes me very sad to see such an intelligent person as yourself feeling the way you do. I pray that someday you don’t experience a huge shock.

While the overwhelming majority of the feedback I received was positive, these letters express what a significant number of American Jews feel. I responded with this message:

Allow me to respectfully disagree with you. I do not condone any behavior of any president that is wrong. I do not embrace unrefined language or any actions that are wanting. Yet the facts remain that Donald Trump, notwithstanding all his flaws and shortcomings, canceled the horrific and dangerous nuclear deal with Iran, a regime yearning to create a second Auschwitz, a despicable leadership which craves to see rivers of blood flowing — Heaven forbid — from Jerusalem to Washington. He has been a staunch friend of Israel and the Jewish People. Despite radical pressure and criticism, he, in contrast to many former presidents who promised and did not deliver, relocated the US Embassy in Jerusalem. Under his leadership, the US acknowledged the Golan Heights as part of Israel. He commuted the sentence of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin who did not deserve to sit 27 years in a prison cell. Does he not deserve a thank you?

Israel is fighting now in Gaza. In the past, the US always called on both sides to show restraint. No more. The president knows the difference between terrorists and the victims of the terrorists — and he calls a spade a spade. He knows this is not a battle of two equal sides. This is a quantum shift in US policy toward Israel. Does he not deserve a thank you?

The Palestinian Authority was giving billions of shekels a year to the families of “shahids,” suicide terrorists who murdered Jews. In 2016, the PA distributed $303 million in stipends to families of people who axed, stabbed, and gunned down Jews — money coming from US taxpayers. The shameful tradition was happening both under Republican and Democratic presidents. Trump was the first leader who said no more. He stopped it. Does he not deserve a thank you?

It is not only about the past, but also about the future. He is the president of the US, no matter if one likes it or not. We, the Jewish People, want to use our influence to influence politicians to use their power to defend the good and the innocent, to fight anti-Semitism, to support Israel, to combat terrorism, to cut down ISIS and all other Islamists who crave to see a world drenched in the blood of infidels. How can we try to yield positive influence if all we do is discuss the flaws of one leader or another, no matter whether true or false?

In all honesty, do you think as a result of my words at the luncheon, the president might be friendlier to Israel or conversely? In the book of reality, that’s what really matters: the safety and security of seven million of our brothers and sisters living in the Holy Land.

Let’s even assume for a moment that you are correct in all of your accusations concerning the president. Does that matter? In Judaism, we always show respect to the office of the presidency, no matter its leader. No other than Reb Chanina ben Tradyon states in Pirkei Avos: “You must pray for the welfare of the government” — and he was referring to the same vicious Roman Empire who tortured him to death! G-d commanded Moshe to show respect to Pharaoh and Elijah to show respect to Achav — both wicked, murderous kings.

Throughout history, Jews went to meet all types of leaders, of all shades and hues, for this exact reason: to help tip the scale to the good. Sometimes they met with leaders of very low moral standing; sometimes they met heinous and evil kings. The Talmud and Midrash are filled with these narratives. In the Tanach, Esther went to meet Achashveirosh who killed his own queen and agreed to a genocidal plan of Haman, because she knew that G-d wants us to employ the natural means to influence leaders to try to do the right thing at the right moment.

Even if you disagree, there is no need for you to box me into a primitive model just because I disagree with you on this issue. Instead of assuming abruptly that I mortgaged my soul, you can say: I disagree, but I can respect that maybe Rabbi YY was acting in good faith and trying to do the right thing, at least in his estimation. If you could not even entertain such a thought, I pray that you expand your horizons, and that your commitment to kindness, compassion, sensitivity, and decency is internalized by you even when judging someone who went to meet the president of the United States.

Regardless, life moves on. The president went back to his business, and I went back to my business. It is time to resume our study of Torah, our dedication to prayer, our celebration of mitzvos, and our work to turn our world into an abode for the Divine, a world filled with goodness, kindness, compassion, and holiness.

Respectfully, and with many warm blessings,

Rabbi YY Jacobson

 

Sharing the Glory

As President Trump ascended the stage, I seized the moment to tell him in person how millions of Jews were thankful for his dedication to the security of Israel and the Jewish People, that as long as he was committed to truth and goodness, he ought to fear nothing and nobody. I then took the mic and made the blessing we make upon seeing non-Jewish kings and leaders (Berachos 58a; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 224): “Baruch Atah Hashem… shenasan mikvodo lebasar va’dam,” thanking G-d for sharing some of His glory with a human being charged with the mission to hold up the glory and dignity of all.

There is an argument among rabbinic authorities whether or not this blessing is said for an elected president, who is not a monarch. I followed the many halachic opinions (the Shevet HaLevi, Rav Shmuel Wosner; the Shearim Metzuyanim B’Halachah, Rav Shlomo Zalman Braun; Rav Dovid Yosef; and many others) that the blessing should be made even on a president if he has the authority to commute a death sentence and can declare war. In addition, as the leader of the free world, the president of the United States has a unique status that increases the validity of making such a blessing.

The blessing the Sages instituted has little to do with the actual leader, and all to do with his Divine Creator. Every king and leader, no matter his moral caliber, has a piece of G-d’s Kingship in him or her. Leadership, the capacity to rise above one’s individual image to become the heartbeat of a nation, is a Divine gift. Malchus in its truest form is a heavenly experience. How the leader uses this gift is a completely different story. Some use it to bring light to the world; others, to bring darkness to mankind. But the energy is there, even if it is misused. We are thanking Hashem for bequeathing mankind with this Divine power.

This answered a question I had for many years. Our Sages say that we make this blessing even if the king is a rasha, and they go so far as to instruct that it’s a mitzvah to go see a non-Jewish king, even if it means interrupting one’s Torah learning. But why? Why would we thank Hashem for such a king? I think the answer is clear: We are not thanking Hashem for the particular conduct of the king who may be kind or may be cruel. We are expressing gratitude for the gift of leadership, which in its truest manifestation is Divine, even if it is abused.

Another fascinating point is the textual change of the blessing when seeing a Jewish king as opposed to a non-Jewish king. For a Jewish king we say, “Shechalak mikvodo lebasar va’dam,” that Hashem “split off” part of His glory, giving it to a human person. For a non-Jewish king we say, “Shenasan mikvodo lebasar va’dam,” that He gave of his glory to a human being. Why the difference?

The Magen Avraham and the Taz (Orach Chayim 224) present a magnificent answer: A Jew is a “chelek Elokah mima’al,” meaning that a neshamah is a fragment of the Divine, a “piece” of Hashem, as it were. So we use the word “shechalak,” that Hashem “split off” part of His honor and shared it with the Jewish king. Not only did Hashem give part of his glory as a gift to a king, but rather this king is still part of Him. The Jewish soul is always completely one with Hashem.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 786)

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