Ah, 2009 – what a year that was. We were one year into the financial crisis, but there was still a sense of hope and change in the air. On our third generation iPod shuffles, the Black Eyed Peas promised us that “tonight's gonna be a good night,” with a “mazel tov” thrown in. Gas was $2.73 a gallon. Room and board at a private college would only set you back $50,000 a year.
And President Obama, in his Rosh Hashana greetings, could boast how he was “actively pursuing the lasting peace that has eluded Israel and its Arab neighbors for so long.”
No such promises in this year’s greetings – a matched set for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Instead, he offers a glancing acknowledgement that “peace is hard” and leaves it at that.
I love reading between the lines of presidential greetings. In this year’s Rosh Hashana video, Obama sounds warmer and more forgiving than you might expect he would be coming off a bruising battle over the Iran nuclear deal and during a low point in U.S.-Israel relations.
In 2012, by contrast, Obama sounded less like an old friend and more like a mediator in a trial separation. The High Holy Days, he said that year:
represent a chance to take stock of our lives and look forward to the coming year with clear eyes and renewed purpose. In that spirit, the Jewish Tradition teaches us that one of the most important duties we have during this period is the act of reconciliation. We’re called to seek each other out and make amends for those moments when we may not have lived up to our values as well as we should.
Obama was referring to the ritual in which Jews are supposed to seek forgiveness from those they may have wronged in the previous year. (If critics of the deal were seeking an apology from Obama this year, they were disappointed. “OBAMA: NO APOLOGY TO JEWS ON ROSH HASHANAH,” trumpeted a headline on Breitbart.com.)
Still, I sensed that the Iran debate informed this year’s greetings:
Chag Sameach, everybody. On behalf of myself, Michelle, and our family, I want to extend our warmest wishes to Jews across America, Israel, and the world as you mark the first of the High Holy Days.
Jewish tradition teaches us that, for the next ten days, the Book of Life is open. As millions of Jews ask God to inscribe their names in that book, we recognize how much lies beyond our control. Yet during these Days of Awe we also recognize our tremendous power to make a difference, in our lives and in our world.
As human beings we’re not required to be perfect, but we are required to atone where we’ve fallen short, and to do whatever we can to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and to love the stranger and to treat him as we would want to be treated. These things are not easy. Faith is hard, hope is hard, peace is hard, but right now the book is open, not just for God but for us.
As a community bound together by shared values, side by side with friends and allies like the State of Israel, let’s write the next chapter in a way that speaks to the best of our traditions and the highest of our ideals. Let’s usher in a sweet new year, full of health and happiness for our families, friends and neighbors, whether they live down the street or halfway around the world
Happy new year everyone, and from my family to yours, Shana Tovah.
When Obama compares that which “lies beyond our control” with the “tremendous power to make a difference,” he could be talking about the Iran deal – acknowledging the deal is not perfect, but asserting that the attempt to reach a diplomatic solution was a mitzvah, and worth the uncertainty. He continues this theme in the next clause, saying human beings are “not required to be perfect.”
No, Obama doesn’t exactly apologize for any role he might have played in the strained relationships between the White House and Israel. But in saying that “we are required to atone where we’ve fallen short, and to do whatever we can to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past,” it sounds like he is extending a hand, or at least saying, “I’m sorry if you’re sorry.”
That gesture becomes even more explicit in the next section, where he says, “As a community bound together by shared values, side by side with friends and allies like the State of Israel, let’s write the next chapter in a way that speaks to the best of our traditions and the highest of our ideals.”
Obama wants to turn a page, and hopes his Jewish friends and critics join him.
In an unusual and perhaps unprecedented gesture, the White House sent out a separate “statement” for Yom Kippur:
As Jews across America, Israel, and the world gather for the sacred service of Kol Nidre, Michelle and I extend our wishes for an easy fast to all those observing Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement is a time for humility, reflection and repentance, a chance to be honest with ourselves and one another about our shortcomings. Yet Yom Kippur is also a day of hope. Through our prayers and through our actions, as individuals and as a community, we can better bridge the realities of our world with the ideals and values we share. On this special day, may our common humanity unite us, and may our common faith in a better future inspire us to continue healing our world. G’mar Chatimah Tovah.
The Yom Kippur statement continues the repentance theme, describing the “Day of Atonement” as “a time for humility, reflection and repentance, a chance to be honest with ourselves and one another about our shortcomings.” It sounds like Obama himself, with one year left in his second term, is doing a little stock-taking of his own.
Obama or his aides know, however, that Yom Kippur is not just about self-flagellation. The Talmud actually considers Yom Kippur one of the happiest days of the year, because it is a day when people are reconciled with each other and with God. Or, as Obama puts it, “Yom Kippur is also a day of hope…. On this special day, may our common humanity unite us, and may our common faith in a better future inspire us to continue healing our world.”
(“Healing our world,” of course, is a reference to tikun olam, which most Jews today take to mean the social justice agenda. As I noted at the time, Obama’s declaration for Jewish Heritage Month in 2010 represented the first official use of the term by a sitting president.)
“G’mar hatimah tovah” (May you be inscribed [in the Book of Life] for Good) is a nice and surprising final touch. Most presidential declarations end with more anodyne wishes for a “sweet, happy, and healthy new year.” The Hebrew phrase is much more “insidery,” most likely to be used and understood by the engaged Jews who show up in shul when it’s not the High Holy Days. Dissatisfaction with Obama tends to rise with one's level of Jewish religious engagement. Perhaps it’s a way of assuring his observant listeners that, literally and figuratively, “I speak your language.”
(I also enjoyed the idea of the White House press corps having to Google the term.)
The two greetings are a fascinating one-two punch – suggesting the president was ready to join in a Jewish process of repentance, introspection, and reconciliation and “write the next chapter” in his relationship with his Jewish critics. Whether his Jewish critics are willing to forgive him is another question, although it doesn’t sound like Obama will lose any sleep if they don’t.