Rabbi Andrew Warmflash

Several years ago, Beth and I went to Houston to visit our children. We had planned the trip to coincide with Presidents Day, expecting to be able to spend the day with our grandchildren, who,
we assumed, would be off from school.

Upon arrival, we were stunned to learn that Presidents Day is not observed in Texas. Whatever the reason, this strikes me as extremely unfortunate. Beyond the sales and hoopla, Presidents Day affords us an opportunity to reflect on the lives and legacies of two of our country’s greatest leaders, men of moral stature whose characters exemplify qualities that we and our current leaders would do well to emulate.

I recently finished a book about George Washington and the American Revolution entitled: In the Hurricane’s Eye. In it, historian Nathaniel Philbrick highlights Washington’s strategic genius in the conduct of the war. What emerges is a picture of Washington’s skillful leadership and moral stature.

Philbrick writes: “Washington had long since learned that greatness was attained not by insisting on what was right for oneself but by insisting on what was right for others. He could be forbidding and remote, but there was a surprising gentleness about him that instilled a remarkable sense of loyalty in just about everyone…an affability that created love and reverence.”

Washington’s commitment to fairness and justice extended to America’s nascent Jewish community. In his famous letter to the Jews of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, he wrote that America offered the Jewish people more than mere toleration: full and equal citizenship: “Happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”

The extraordinarily respectful letter concludes with these Biblical words of blessing: “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will
of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

The Pittsburgh shootings last November made it clear that we have yet to fully achieve Washington’s vision for our people and our nation. May his example inspire all of us to work for the day when American Jews and all the other inhabitants of our country will live together in peace, freedom, and mutual respect.

Happy Presidents Day.