The picture is powerful because it expresses a truth we know well
In the social media age, pictures have become especially symbolic. People unconditioned and unused to reading a string of sentences rely on an image to tell an entire story.
And what a story last week’s picture told: a widely circulated image of President Joseph Biden bowing down on one knee to Israeli president Rivlin’s chief of staff, Mrs. Rivka Ravitz, as Rivlin looks on like a proud elter-fetter.
It’s a prize-winning shot not because of what it tells us about the president, the other president, or even about Mrs. Ravitz.
President Rivlin, it emerged, had introduced Mrs. Ravitz by saying that she was a mother of 12, and Biden expressed admiration by bowing low and lowering his knee. That’s the picture. And it’s powerful because it expresses a truth we know well.
Authenticity and timeless truth, the natural order with which HaKadosh Baruch Hu created His world, exert the most powerful force. And here, the most powerful human being on earth bowed before the ideal of motherhood.
The courage, the strength, the fortitude, and the valor to bring 12 children into the world — motherhood! — awed him, and unscripted, the president expressed what he genuinely felt.
We forget, sometimes, how much authenticity we carry. Hundreds of years of galus — mockery, hate, and disdain — cause us to falter and misrepresent the purity of our own cause.
I was recently speaking to a friend active in kiruv, and I expressed sympathy about the current state of American politics, certain that the woke wave makes his job harder than ever. There is no really smooth way to explain shelo Asani ishah to the woke crowd, no politically correct language to present the Torah’s view on various social causes championed by the street.
Actually, he told me, it was easier than ever.
“Ten years ago,” he explained, “we would still give trick answers, using words and phrases that kept things a bit fuzzy or vague. But now it doesn’t work — they already know where we stand — so we started to double down. Yes, authentic Judaism has a moral code. Yes, marriage is between man and woman and it is sacred. Yes, males and females have different missions.”
Then his face brightened. “You know what? It’s much more effective this way. When we’re speaking pure truth, there’s more passion, and if we lose one or two listeners, the ones who remain are that much more convinced.”
Last week, I was on the porch of Monsey’s great Vizhnitz beis medrash after Shacharis, and I turned my phone back on as I enjoyed a coffee. (Yes, I know Monsey has many great coffee options — java, frappe, latte, mochaccino, skim milk, whole milk, caramel, iced, available for pick up, delivered at the curb, or dropped with a drone through the sunroof of your car and into the drink holder — but there is still no coffee like beis medrash coffee: thick Styrofoam cup, too much coffee because it’s impossible to get it right, and milk bottles in which the middle is still a block of ice because it was kept in the freezer for a week.)
A sweet teenage boy with bright eyes hurried over and politely told me that smartphones were not allowed on the premises. Instead of the usual resistance I would feel — lay off, I have a filter, I work for a living, worry about your own issues — I felt moved. I wasn’t sure why, but when I stood at the other end of the porch (I was about to turn it off, was just checking one email!) another bochur came over, with the same rapid pace, the same sweet, courteous expression, and repeated the message. Smartphones were forbidden on the premises.
I was moved yet again, and I had no trouble following instructions and turning off my phone immediately. I headed to my car, and (after checking that email) I realized what it was about the boys: They had really, really meant what they’d said. It wasn’t superiority, it wasn’t pretentiousness, it wasn’t being judgmental. It was confident, authentic, and delivered with genuine feeling, as if they were truly offended by the sight of my device. If it was a bit holier than thou, it was because, well… they are holier than I.
If you believe in a cause — but really believe — you don’t have to worry about how it will be perceived, because your own authenticity will be more effective than any glib sales pitches, taglines, or hashtags.
What the world hasn’t done to the institution of motherhood: unfulfilling, they called it, even ignoble. Lean in and achieve professional success. You’re not just there to have babies. It will wear you down and deprive you of the energy to do real stuff.
Yet the president of the free world bowed not before Israel’s outgoing president, and not before any other head of state either — he bowed before the woman who brought 12 children into the world, recognizing that in that, lies genuine glory.
In my house, there used to be an old jokebook called the Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor, with jokes of the shtetl and shtibel, tailors and shadchanim and peddlers and bankers dancing around every page. One joke tells of the nouveau riche second-generation American, a young woman whose parents had arrived in New York with nothing, but spared no expense in sending their American daughter to private, upscale schools, and marrying her off to an aspiring lawyer. While in labor, she wept with pain, and the doctor listened closely to her cries. “Mon dieu!” she called out, but he didn’t flinch. “I can’t take it anymore,” she wailed, but the doctor didn’t react. Then she convulsed and howled, “Mamme, helf mir!” and the doctor nodded at the nurse. “Now it’s for real,” he said.
If the cry of “Mamme” is central to who we are, to the human experience, then those crowned with the title are clearly at the center of that experience. And this might be the most eloquent statement that the current president has made to date.
In bowing, he stated loud and clear, in a very human way, that with all the power, honor, glory, and pomp that surrounds him, another person who so clearly reflects the Divine Will and plan for creation is worthy of awe.
Straight-talking Joe, he’s been called. Here, he said it perfectly.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 868.
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