“Mr. President, my daughter has something she would like to say to you”
Last week, my daughter Rachelli and I had the privilege of going with Rabbi and Rebbetzin Pilichowski to the White House Chanukah party. Being together with Jewish leaders from around the country including two Supreme Court Justices, Members of Congress, prominent Rabbis, and accomplished Jewish academics was an amazing and memorable experience.
The entire White House kitchen was koshered and elegant signs hung that said, “Meat is Glatt Kosher, Baked Goods are Pas Yisroel, all Wine is Mevushal. All foods have been prepared Lemihadrin with a Mashgiach Temidi.” Every effort was extended to make Jews of all backgrounds and levels of observance feel welcome and included.
The 90 year old Menorah that was used came from Temple Israel in Long Beach, N.Y., a Synagogue that had been severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy. It was lit by Rabbi Larry Bazer, the Joint Forces Chaplain for the Massachusetts National Guard. Rabbi Bazer was invited to the party last year, but was unable to attend, as he was four months into his deployment in Afghanistan where he spent every night of Chanukah with a different group of soldiers.
As we stood there watching the Menorah illuminate the main hall of the East Wing of the White House, I couldn’t help but marvel at how remarkable a time we are living in and the blessings of living in this incredible country. Chanukah is the story of triumph over those that sought our spiritual annihilation through systematic assimilation and worked to cause us to lose our identity. Thousands of years later, here we were standing in the most powerful building in the world with the most powerful man in the world celebrating proudly our Jewish identity and the perseverance of the Jewish people.
After the President made his remarks he greeted a few people and began heading back to the residence. When he passed by where we were standing I called out “Mr. President.” He turned, shook my hand and wished me a Happy Chanukah. I introduced him to Rachelli and said, “Mr. President, my daughter has something she would like to say to you.” To be honest, I was a little nervous that Rachelli would freeze, be intimidated or star struck and forget to deliver the message that she had planned on sharing if given the opportunity. But my Rachelli didn’t miss a beat and delivered her important message flawlessly.
“Mr. President,” she said, “I have many first cousins that live in Israel. I want to thank you for what you have done to help them and keep them safe.” “Your welcome,” said President Obama, “it is my honor.” Rachelli boldly continued, “Mr. President, please do everything you can in the future to stand with Israel and to make sure my cousins are safe and secure.” “I will do my best,” said the President, and with that he moved on. At that point the First Lady offered an amazing compliment to my daughter, but that is for another time.
In anticipation of seeing the President we had given thought to what we would say, how we would say it, what message we wanted to communicate, what we wanted to accomplish, and what was the best use of our limited time with the leader of the free world. In this week’s parsha, Vayigash, Yosef similarly prepares his brothers for their audience with Pharaoh, helping them formulate their message and craft their request to be settled in the land of Goshen. It is only natural and appropriate to be particularly thoughtful and planned before speaking with someone of extraordinary influence and power.
The next day, Rachelli and I realized something upsetting. We all have the privilege of an audience with someone even more powerful than the President on a daily basis and yet, we couldn’t recall the last time we measured our words, gave thought in anticipation of that meeting or planned what we were going to say. True, davening doesn’t offer the same pomp and circumstance or grandeur of the White House. But, if you think about it, we have access to the Almighty, the King of Kings, the Master of the Universe who brings His providence to governing the world and our lives. We consistently are provided an opportunity to ask God for whatever we want, to issue a request, to communicate a message of great import and yet we just walk in and wing it at best or thoughtlessly cruise through it at worst.
There are two more elements to our experience that evening that I believe can inspire us to greater reverence in our relationship with the Almighty and the formal time we spend together with Him in His house, the Shul. At the conclusion of the evening, we were given permission to daven Ma’ariv in the Red Room. Not only were we welcomed to hold our Minyan, a number of White House Ushers stood guard outside the room to protect the decorum and to insure that we wouldn’t be distracted by unnecessary interruptions or noise. If the White House Ushers are sensitive enough to intuit their mandate to protect decorum during prayer, shouldn’t we be more sensitive to usher in quiet and reverence during our davening services?
Lastly, there was a person walking around the event dressed somewhat casually. I know that seeing him caught me off guard and disturbed at least a few other people as well. How could someone walk around the White House in the presence of the President in such an informal, casual fashion we wondered? Doesn’t the dignity of this special space demand the honor of more formal attire? Later, it occurred to me that perhaps we should be equally bothered by the casual attitude which is brought by many to their dress and appearance in God’s House and in His presence.
The Talmud records and the Shulchan Aruch codifies a special blessing upon meeting a King. Halachic authorities debate if a modern day President meets the criterion to say the blessing today with most suggesting it be said without reciting Hashem’s name. The text of that blessing is most instructive. When in the presence of great power we acknowledge that God shares His honor with mere mortal man – “Shenasan michvodo l’basar v’dam.”
Being karov l’malchus, in proximity of the President, is supposed to illicit an awe, reverence and veneration that we can translate back onto our relationship with Hashem. Rachelli and I, as well as the Pilichowskis, will not soon forget the feeling of being in the White House with the President and First Lady. I hope and pray that similarly we don’t soon forget the lessons we learned that night – to measure our words carefully before speaking to God, to be Ushers and guardians of decorum in His house and to have our dress be formal and bestow honor to Him.