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With the campaigns for the presidency of the United States in full swing people are beginning to imagine the inaugural address that will be delivered this coming January 20. Especially this year, when the candidates offer such different visions for America, rhetoric enthusiasts are expecting whoever wins to deliver an inspiring speech designed to provide a strategy and game plan for the country to move forward.
Each year, amid the ebullient joy manifest during the holiday of Sukkot, we read the megillah of Kohelet. With its realistic perspective on the world, Kohelet provides us with the means to not only properly calibrate our joy, but to accurately understand the role of joy and happiness in the world.
Colin Powell, despite reaching the pinnacle of power, has never forgotten his simple roots in the Bronx. This proud connection to his past manifests itself in many ways, ranging from his work ethic to his love of hotdogs. It also manifests itself in his appreciation of what the “regular guy” brings to the table in every organization.
When national tragedy struck on November 22, 1963 Vice President Lyndon Johnson was inadequately prepared to assume the presidency. The Kennedy people had done their best to sideline him throughout the first three years of JFK’s term. Thus, he was not in the know in regards to many of the important initiatives Kennedy had proposed, but that would now become his responsibility. Additionally, there was substantial personal ill will between LBJ and Kennedy’s people - especially JFK’s younger brother Bobby, the attorney general.
Captain Chesley Sullenberger, of “miracle on the Hudson” fame, recently wrote a book on leadership entitled, Making a Difference: Stories of Vision and Courage From America’s Leaders. Instead of focusing on his own heroic performance, landing Flight 1549, he decided to focus on a number of contemporary leaders who have influenced events in some way. The first person he wrote about is Admiral Thad Allen, former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. Allen is best known for assuming command of the government’s rescue and relief effort in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Although Megilat Rut is one of the most beautiful stories regarding unadulterated chesed, it also serves as a primer on leadership. After all, its primary purpose is to establish the lineage of King David’s dynasty. Therefore we should expect to glean from it some important leadership lessons. Yet at first blush it would appear more apt to describe it as a book about followership. Rut’s noble commitment to join the Jewish people, despite all the hardships this entailed, is captured in her stirring words (1:16): “To where you will go I will go, where you will sleep I will sleep, your nation is my nation…” These words seem to constitute a declaration of what is termed “followership” more than leadership. However, a recent class trip, with my Yeshivah’s 8th grade, to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis helped clarify matters.
In a famous photo, President John F. Kennedy is seen facing the windows of the Oval Office with his back to the camera. Slightly bent over, with his hands spread out on a credenza, he appears in deep and painful thought. The caption of the picture says it all: “The Loneliest Job.” Only the relatively few people who have been President of the United States truly understand the enormity of the job’s burden. It is for this reason presidents, despite their party affiliation, and often after leaving office, develop close bonds with one another, give the current office holder the benefit of the doubt and make themselves available to whoever may be president at the moment to help and advise.
More than 1500 people died on the Titanic. As a result of the tragedy, out of date conventions and procedures were changed, navigational mistakes were identified and corrected, and the threat of ice was taken seriously—even in the era of modern ships. Walter Lord, in his seminal book on the disaster, A Night to Remember (1955), wrote: “Never again would men fling a ship into an ice field, heedless of warnings, putting their whole trust in a few thousand tons of steel and rivets. From then on Atlantic liners took ice messages seriously, steered clear, or slowed down. Nobody believed in the ‘unsinkable ship.’
May 1864 was one of the bloodiest months in American military history. At what came to be known as the Battle of the Wilderness, General Grant’s Union forces suffered close to 18,000 casualties between May 3 and May 6. It seemed as yet another Union general, even one such as Grant who had been successful out west, lost to General Robert E. Lee.
For most of the nations of the world, the laws governing interactions between people are conventions set up by citizens to enable their society to function. They are bereft of any Divine influence. However, such laws within a Jewish society are very much religious laws as well. To demonstrate this point the Sanhedrin, which was ultimately responsible for all legal aspects of society, was housed in the Temple. By being there it was made clear to all that, for Jewish society, the interpersonal societal laws were Divine in origin, just as the ritual laws were.
Looking back in time it is amazing to realize that every so often we encounter a 24-hour period with a timeless impact on the trajectory of human history. These periods, though short in actual time, through the convergence of multiple factors, produced historic decisions—decisions that arguably affected humankind forever after.