President Obama released his Rosh Hashana greetings last week, which is good news for nerds like me who actually like to read and parse this annual political ritual. Political proclamations are written to be as anodyne and uncontroversial as possible, but I read them closely in case something like candor sneaks in. And I am usually rewarded.
The exercise tends to be a lot more interesting in an election year, when you can compare and contrast the candidates’ messages. Republicans tend to focus on national security and prosperity, and hopes that both remain strong in the new year. Democrats are more likely to reference the poor and oppressed and how Rosh Hashana calls on us to “repair the world” — tikun olam.
But beyond these broad strokes there are always interesting details, and Obama’s message for 5774 — delivered on video and transcribed at whitehouse.gov — doesn’t disappoint.
First off, I was tickled that this year’s proclamation starts with a shout out to a legendary New Jersey Jew: “Fifty years ago last week,” says the president, referring to the anniversary of the March on Washington, “Rabbi Joachim Prinz stood with Dr. King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Representing the thousands of Jews there that day, he told the marchers, ‘When God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept.’”
Prinz, a refugee from Nazi Germany who went on to lead Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark, offered stirring, evocative remarks just before King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. I suspect that Obama was reminding a core constituency — perhaps two core constituencies — of the fabled black-Jewish alliance, and asserting that it still stands.
Obama also takes care of another bit of domestic business, but with a distinctly New Democratic twist. “[W]here we still have work to do, the New Year is a chance to reaffirm our commitments,” he says. “At home, we must continue building an economy that gives all people willing to work hard a fair shot at a middle-class life.” Did you see what he did there? The “all people willing to work hard” sounds downright Clintonian, if not Republican. I’m not sure the Torah conditions aid to the widow and orphan on how hard they work, and the evidence is clear that many families who work hard for minimum wage still can’t get by. But in today’s political climate, it seems everyone is wary of “handouts.”
In the obligatory section on Israel, Obama is more effusive than in recent years. “Beyond our borders, we must stand for the security of our allies, even as we take new steps in the pursuit of peace,” says Obama. He seems to be assuring listeners that the renewed negotiations will not compromise Israel’s security. At the same time, the vow to “stand for the security of our allies” seems like a direct reference to his pledges on Iran. He also reminds listeners of what was probably the high point of his presidency in terms of U.S.-Israel relations: “I was proud to visit Israel earlier this year to renew the unbreakable bond between our two countries, and to talk directly with young Israelis about the future we share.”
However, what I find most interesting about Obama’s Jewish proclamations, this year and in years past, is his willingness to go beyond the soft “Happy New Year” sentiments of which even most Jews are probably guilty. Thirty years ago, Rabbi Everett Gendler complained that Jews treat the High Holy Days like the opera — they dress up, sit through a four-hour ordeal interspersed with a few familiar tunes, and then get together afterward to eat and shmooze. And no doubt the tradition wants us to have a shana tova u’metuka –— a good and sweet year — and to share our happiness with others.
But there is a darker, more sober side to the holy days, which earn them the more appropriate designation as the “Yamim Nora’im,” the Days of Awe. We’re not supposed to be celebrating, but preparing a spiritual accounting. This is a time for “anxiety, trepidation, humility, and soul searching,” in Gendler’s phrase.
Obama’s people get this. In last year’s Rosh Hashana remarks, he referenced the season’s essential concept of teshuva — repentance — explicitly. “[T]he Jewish tradition teaches us that one of the most important duties we have during this period is the act of reconciliation,” he said then. “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.”
This year, he expands on that theme: “As the high holidays begin, it’s a chance not just to celebrate with friends and family, but to ask some of life’s most piercing questions. Am I treating strangers with kindness? Am I living not just for myself, but for others? Am I doing my part to repair the world? Where we fall short, the New Year is a new opportunity to get things right.”
Interestingly, this year’s greetings don’t reference Syria, not even in vague reference to America’s international responsibilities or the like. Whatever happens between now and 5775, I hope we won’t have to repent our actions in that part of the world.