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Shabbat Parashat Naso, June 2, 2012: At the White House
Rabbi Eric Yanoff
Shabbat Shalom.
This past week, your rabbi had a memorable and, I must say, awe-inspiring
experience: Two Tuesdays ago, my wife Dava called me frantically: “Call the
Rabbinical Assembly… NOW!” she said. I spoke to Rabbi Jack Moline, the
Director of Public Policy at the RA, and he explained to me that we were invited by
the White House for a meeting with Chief of Staff Jacob Lew, and most probably
the President of the United States would be in attendance for a good part of the
So this past Tuesday, I joined fifteen other Conservative rabbis from around the
country, and a few other communal leaders, a group of twenty in all, to meet with
the President in the Roosevelt Room – about as far from the Oval Office as I
currently am from the Ark up there, just steps.
Now, out of respect for the
parameters of the meeting – that we were welcome to discuss the meeting, that it
happened, the themes discussed, but no direct quotations, I want to share the
experience with you today, and after services, I‟m happy to answer any other
questions, within those parameters. (Of course, I had to come up with something
for the press that was a bit more articulate than, “It was really cool…”)
We arrived in the Roosevelt Room at 2:00, and were greeted by Jack Lew, the
Chief of Staff, who is himself an observant Jew. We began the conversation at that
point, and then at about 2:20, the President came in the room, we all rose (he
doesn’t require an announcement like “the congregation will rise”), he greeted
Shabbat Parashat Naso 5772, June 2, 2012: Rabbi Goes to Washington, White House Visit – R. Eric Yanoff
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each of us personally with a handshake, thanking us for being there.
presentation was well-prepared by leaders of the different arms of the Conservative
Movement: Chancellor Arnie Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi
Julie Schonfeld of the Rabbinical Assembly, and Rabbi Wernick from United
Synagogue. Rabbi Schonfeld led us in the blessing that is traditionally said upon
meeting a head of state, which begins with the classic formula Baruch Atah… - and
continues “she-natan mik’vodo l’vasar v’dam” – by praising God for bestowing
God‟s presence and honor and respect on human beings entrusted to lead.
The meeting contained many topics: We did discuss Iran, as well as Syria…
Israel’s security was (of course) an important theme, with a tone and content
similar to the President‟s strong AIPAC speech three months ago. We also heard
about domestic issues: The economy, jobs, healthcare, and the like. Chancellor
Eisen‟s question addressed the role of religious conscience and leadership – how
throughout this nation‟s history, with examples as far-reaching as the American
Revolution to the Civil Rights movement, religious leadership has been a prime
mover to further the vision and improvement of this country. How the communal
focus of Judaism, and Conservative Judaism in particular – the idea that we are
stronger as a unified society than as individual actors – how this may seem countercultural today, but is what ultimately makes this country strong. We learned of a
trend, as far back as the „60s, even further - of the general view of government
being seen as external or even intrusive to a person‟s individual well-being –
instead of government being a necessary part of bringing us together to build a
society in which its individuals can be proud.
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Now, I‟ve often warned you when I speak from this pulpit of things that have
politics as an angle: You are going try to discern my politics, what I think of
President Obama, how I have voted or am going to vote. I know that; it‟s the
occupational hazard of talking about important, relevant issues. You are going to
try to figure it out… And I promise you: You will not be successful. And so I‟ll
say this: You can agree with this President, or disagree with him… like him or
dislike him. But as the President of the United States went around the room again,
to shake our hands and leave after about a half-hour of his time with us, as we left
the West Wing just over an hour after we had arrived, I felt a sense of awe.
I have a HUGE appreciation and respect for the Office of the Presidency.
There is tremendous gravitas to his presence, his time, his ability to reflect and
think as he speaks. And the fact that, much to my frustration at times over the past
few days, the press has picked up on the minutiae of his words – means that the
words of the President of the United States are important.
I am reminded of this from a central moment in our Torah reading today – the
Priestly Blessing. Rabbis use this blessing all the time; it is the blessing the Cantor
and I just gave to Jake, with parents Jeff and Suzi placing their hands on their son.
It is a powerful moment. And yet, people nowadays often express discomfort over
this blessing in its traditional form: Just because someone was born a kohen, a
member of the inherited priestly sect of Judaism, going back 3500 years – why
should that guy get to bless the rest of us? Who is he? Who does he think he is?
This is a very real concern – one that I worry about all the time. Who the heck do
I think I am, to be able to offer a blessing? I‟m not even a kohen, the first sect
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empowered to give the blessing. But there is a teaching that there are thirty-six
truly righteous people in the world – and their identity is a secret, but the sure-fire
way to know a person is NOT one of those righteous, is if they CLAIM to BE one
of those righteous. How does a person see himself or herself as able to offer the
Priestly Blessing from our Torah portion? It is true of religious leaders, as well as
governmental leaders: Some of the things I do as your rabbi require a healthy ego,
a little bit of chutzpah, to even presume to be in an office or position to do those
Of course, we can always count on our kids to take us down a few notches. I
remember once when my son Aiden was three, I brought cupcakes to his
preschool room for his birthday. He had been around the synagogue for his entire
life, but when his friends started to say, “Rabbi Eric, I want a cupcake! Rabbi Eric,
me!” I was feeling like quite a celebrity, when Aiden turned to me and said,
“Daddy – are you a Wabbi?!” – Because to him, I was just “Daddy.” My wife
Dava has often found herself giggling at me, at that guy up there, doing that
wedding, giving that blessing, is the same schmo who walks past the same mess
three times before even seeing it on the floor.
But the priestly blessing in the Torah takes care of that concern. [Source sheet.]
The Torah makes it clear that it is not about the individual priest or official – but
about the power of the office. God says, “ANI avar’chem – I will offer the
I felt a sense of awe and appreciation walking into the Roosevelt Room – because
in addition to the fact that, like him or not, agree with him or not, President Obama
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is a smart man – in addition to that, the Office of the Presidency demands and
deserves such respect. And finally, I felt a sense of awe because of that moment in
history: There are precious few times in American history when a president has
sought the counsel, cooperation, and company of Jewish leaders. We certainly did
not have that standing as a people before World War II – otherwise, the horrors of
the Holocaust might have been lessened in scope and duration. We live in amazing
times, when words like chessed (lovingkindness and selfless care for others) and
kishkes came out of the mouths of a chief of staff or a president, with real fluency
and understanding. And zooming out even more, there are only a limited number
of times in all of WORLD history when a world leader has sought the company of
Jewish leadership. That alone should make us patriotic.
That is what we mean when we offer that blessing – to which President Obama
said AMEN: Baruch Atah Adonai… she-natan mik’vodo l’vasar v’dam – Praised
are you, God, ruler of the Universe, Who bestows and entrusts human beings, with
all our strivings, with all our imperfections, and with all our hopes, Who entrusts us
with enough awe and chutzpah and chessed in our kishkes to work hard, to build a
more perfect union, in a more perfect world. Keyn yehi ratzon – So may it be
God‟s will. And let us say: AMEN.
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