Latest update: December 26th, 2013
George Washington had not yet arrived in New York City to assume the presidency, but the Senate wasted no time getting down to business. Upon his arrival, John Adams, Vice-President of the United States and President of the Senate, called it to order for the first time on April 21, 1789. The first decision the Senate needed to make was with respect to how to officially address George Washington. Although the Constitution called the chief executive, the President of the United States of America, it did not instruct how he should be addressed in person.
Adams, who had spent much time in the European royal courts, was impressed with and taken in by grandiose titles. He suggested such titles as, “Your Highness” or “Your Most Benign Highness.” He strongly believed that for the Europeans to take the president and country seriously, he had to be addressed in a manner European monarchs could relate to. A number of senators took this idea a bit further and suggested, “His Exalted Highness,” His Elective Highness,” and “His Most Illustrious and Excellent President.” Adams suggested that they appoint special committees to study the issue. However, he further warned that, “You may depend on one thing. The state government will always be uppermost in America in the minds of our own people till you give a superior title to your first national magistrate” (as quoted in “Mr. President”: George Washington and the Making of the Nation’s Highest Office by Harlow Giles Unger, 2013, p.69). Adams then suggested another option, referring to him as “His Highness, the President of the United States, and Protector of the Rights of the Same.”
After several more days of debate it was pointed out that the Constitution prohibits the granting of titles of nobility and therefore caution had to be exercised. Washington himself, upon becoming aware of the debate, felt quite uncomfortable with the honorifics being suggested. Ultimately the title of “Mr. President” was adopted. This title encompassed the republican simplicity and virtues that the Founding Fathers envisioned for the country.
Although some historians point to this episode in a derisive manner, highlighting that the first order of business the Senate addressed was a mere detail of a relatively unimportant issue, others feel differently. Perhaps the Senate should have had a better list of priorities, but this in and of itself does not mean the subject of titles and names is inconsequential. Certainly the fact that Washington’s first name, George, was the same as the King of England, from whom the country had just won its independence was on everybody’s mind. Likewise, the title a person is referred to as, speaks volumes of who he is and what he is known for.
The importance of a name and title is underscored by the Torah and Chazal with respect to Moshe Rabbeinu. Having introduced Moshe in last week’s parsha, the Torah continues to describe his activities to free Bnei Yisrael from slavery in this week’s parsha and will continue to do so for the next several parshiyot. While many commentators suggest various explanations as to the etymology of his name, they all seem to converge on the idea that it has something to do with his leadership.
Rashi explains that the name Moshe is a cognate of the word which means to take out. Thus Moshe’s name would forever remind him of the kindness that Pharaoh’s daughter did for him by taking him out of the Nile, and serve as a lodestar to him as he interacts with his people. The Seforno opines that the name alludes to the future. Just as Pharaoh’s daughter saved Moshe (by pulling him out of the water), so too will in the future save other people. According to both these explanations Moshe’s name would always serve him as a reminder of his responsibilities to his people. His actions in this week’s parsha on behalf of Bnei Yisrael certainly live up to this calling.
However, what is interesting is that the title Moshe is remembered by is Rabbeinu, our teacher. Based on these parshiyot it would seem more appropriate to refer to him with some word indicating political leadership. Yet, as every school child knows, Moshe is our teacher. The Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l described this idea as follows in his lecture, “Who Is Fit to Lead the Jewish People” (as adapted by Rabbi Abraham Besdin in Reflections of The Rav, 1979).
“The authority of Moses, however, derived from his teaching role and his spiritual uniqueness, not his political stature. The Rebbe does not raise himself….It is a spiritual malchut. The commanding authority of the Rebbe has been acknowledged by the Torah in all ages, without reservation. In fact, spiritual authority is often more effective, and its orders more readily obeyed, than political office. The influence of the Besht or the Gaon of Vilna, both during their lifetime and posthumously, extended to and molded the lives of millions. Such a record is hardly matched by political leaders” (p.134). It is true that Moshe was the leader par excellence. But his most enduring influence is the Torah he delivered to and taught us. It is by his position in the chain of mesorah that we refer to him and not the notion that he was indeed the first king we had.
While choosing titles might not warrant being the first decision that a governing body needs to decide, it is not without significance. A title often declares to everyone the nature of the job or the personality of the holder. It is especially enlightening when it is bestowed upon the person by future generations and stands the test of time. Rav Soloveitchik himself, despite all his many accomplishments and achievements, liked to refer to himself as just a “melamed,” a simple teacher. But anybody who is involved in leadership and in developing the next generation knows that it is the successful and dedicated “simple teachers” who are the real builders of the future.
 Washington would not arrive until April 30.
 Whether by his choice or by other people’s choice.
About the Author: Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division and is an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College.
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