These weeks, we are reading the Torah portions that narrate the story of the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh, leading up to the Exodus from Egypt. We are also approaching the annual “Presidents’ Day” celebration. Let’s allow these two realities to speak to each other: When we read about Moses, do any of our U.S. presidents come to mind? Of course, there is more than one possible answer.
Moses and George Washington share some key resonances. Moses was the first executive leader of the Israelites, and in that sense, the “George Washington” of his people. Moses, both by deed and by his death in the wilderness, just outside the Promised Land that he so much longed to enter, established the principle that even the greatest leader lives under the law.
Moses and Abraham Lincoln—an obvious connection. Each one was the great liberator. “Let my people go!” will forever by associated with Moses. And Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation reads as a resounding “Amen” to the Mosaic call:
“Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, president of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in- Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States…by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons…. And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”
While these two presidential parallels are true and obvious, I would argue for one more: I hear echoes of Moses in the lifework of Theodore Roosevelt.
Moses and T.R. were both raised in the lap of privilege, Moses in the very palace of Pharaoh, T.R. enjoying what “old money” could purchase in post-Civil War America.
But both leaders turned away from the mind-set of the selfish “haves” of their societies, and opened their hearts to the “have-nots.” The first action by Moses himself that the Bible records in its memories of the great leader was his leaving the palace, to see to his brothers, the Israelites. He took an interest in their conditions, and sought to relieve their distress. When any other Egyptian aristocrat would have viewed the Israelites as nothing more than the “calloused skin on the hands and feet of Egypt,” feeling no common humanity with the slaves, Moses knew that he was a brother to the most wretched of them. Roosevelt, too, became a champion of the impoverished, the sweat-shop worker, the immigrant “greenhorn” at the mercy of an unregulated and cut-throat economic order. His friend, Jacob Riis, the maverick and pioneer photojournalist, and author of How the Other Half Lives, took T.R. to see the squalor that existed so close to the fashionable uptown mansions of New York’s plutocracy. Riis opened Roosevelt’s eyes to an ugly reality:
“Be a little careful, please! The hall is dark and you might stumble over the children…. Close? Yes! What would you have? All the fresh air that ever enters these stairs comes from the hall-door that is forever slamming, and from the windows of dark bedrooms that in turn receive from the stairs their sole supply of the elements God meant to be free, but man deals out with such niggardly hand.” (How the Other Half Lives, excerpt).
Throughout this presidency, Roosevelt called for bills to protect the worker, the socially and economically disadvantaged; and again and again, the Congress rejected his initiatives as too costly for business interests to bear.
Roosevelt surely understood the revolutionary power of the constitution that Moses implemented, a constitution in which the poor could look forward to a sabbatical release, and a jubilee return to economic equality with the (temporarily) wealthy; a constitution whose principal mandate is “Love your neighbor as yourself” and which insists that the lowest Israelite is and remains achikha, “your brother.”
And so, a tip of the kippah to Moses, as we approach February and Presidents’ Day. May the lifework of Moses ever be an inspiration for our own Chief Executives!
—Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel