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Posts Tagged ‘David Hertzberg’

Parshat Mishpatim: Location! Location! Location!

Friday, February 17th, 2012

The Inauguration of the President of the United States has become both a complicated and expensive process. It begins with a meeting at the White House between the incoming and outgoing First Families, followed by a joint drive to the Capitol for the actual ceremony. Weather permitting, the inauguration is followed by a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. At the conclusion of the parade the new First Couple must quickly change attire in order to attend the many galas and balls being held in their honor that evening.

Interestingly enough, much of what transpires is dictated by tradition. The Constitution itself dedicates a very limited amount of space to the inauguration. The current date is set as January 20th, as per the 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933. The text of the oath of office is presented in Article 2 Section 1 of the Constitution. It is a mere 35 words. Yet this almost matter-of-fact item in the Constitution has become one of the hallmarks of our democracy.

Congressional historian Donald Kennon explained: “It’s probably safe to say that the presidential inauguration is the transcendent ritual associated with the rise to power of a representative government. Unlike the coronation of a monarch or any ritual associated with the rise to power of a dictator or autocrat, the inauguration of the American President is a cyclical, regularly scheduled event held every four years. The regularity of presidential inaugurations lends a sense of reassuring stability, continuity and permanence to a political system that permits turnover in office holders and change in policy agendas. Moreover it is a peaceful change in government, unlike the violence that so often has accompanied a change in head of state elsewhere” (www.fpc.state.gov).

Among the many customs that have developed with respect to the inauguration is its location. Aside from extenuating circumstances, it has almost always taken place at the location of the legislative branch of government. Weather permitting, the President is escorted by a Congressional delegation from within the Capitol confines outside to take the oath in front of the American people. It is this fact, that the president takes the oath at the Capitol which interested me in this topic. My research question was, why?

A Google search found quite a non-scholarly suggestion (who knows? Perhaps it contains a kernel of truth). A person suggested that due to the previous president moving out of the White House and the new president and his staff moving in, the White House would be way too busy of a place to have the ceremony there. Therefore a different venue needed to be chosen – so why not the Capitol. However, Dr. Kennon offers the following possibilities.

The first reason he suggested is precedent. When George Washington took his oath of office, he went to Federal Hall in New York City where Congress was meeting at the time. A second reason Kennon suggested has to do, “with the fact that Congress is the first branch of American government. The first Article of the Constitution created Congress. It was the Continental Congress, after all, which led to the American Revolution. It was a legislative revolution, if you will.” It is held outside, in front of the people, to declare to the world that ultimately the president is answerable to the American people.

This idea, that when it comes to people in power the symbolism of location matters, is highlighted by the commentators at the beginning of this week’s parsha. The Torah begins the parsha with a discussion of the laws that Moshe needs to teach Bnei Yisrael. Rashi, in his commentary on the first pasuk, addresses why the discussion of societal and judicial laws is placed immediately following the Torah’s discussion of the mizbayach at the end of the previous parsha. Rashi explains that with this juxtaposition, the Torah is instructing us that the seat of the Sanhedrin must be established within the confines of the Beit Hamikdash. The anthology Iturei Torah relates the following explanation in the name of the Shlah Hakadosh’s son. Rav Horowitz explains that a major function of the Sanhedrin was to ensure the genetic purity of the Kohanim who served in the Beit Hamikdash. To effectively carry out this responsibility, the Sanhedrin needed to be located in close proximity to the Temple.

The Mei’ana Shel Torah quotes the following explanation from the work Avnei Eizel (which was actually an unpublished manuscript of the compiler of this anthology, Rav Zusha Friedman). 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.

Parshat Vaeira

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

General George Armstrong Custer. The mere mention of his name evokes strong opinions of condemnation or admiration, depending on one’s perspective. Was he a brave, daring and innovative tactician or was he an impulsive, arrogant and reckless one? He was a complicated man by all accounts, so evidence can be marshaled for either side. Recent historians have argued that grading his military experience as a whole is inaccurate and fruitless. Rather, he must be judged in the context of the Civil War as a successful general, while in the context of the Indian wars as an ultimately failed cavalry commander. His decisions and actions at Gettysburg in June 1863 must be judged separately from his decisions and actions at the Little Big Horn in June 1876.

Essentially, the current argument posits that the Civil War and the Indian wars were two fundamentally different types of warfare. Therefore the qualities that made him a successful commander in one did not automatically carry over to the other. The Civil War was a conventional war with large massed armies arrayed against each other in set battles. These battles were more or less governed by accepted rules of war. The tactics followed by both sides were Napoleonic in nature and everyone knew what to expect. It was this type of war that West Point graduates, such as Custer, studied and ultimately excelled at.

The Indian war was quite different. “This was an insurgency, a guerilla war in which the enemy typically attacked civilians rather than military units, and quickly disappeared, melting into the countryside….And in this type of warfare, U.S. troops could not effectively operate in large, massed armies, as they had done in the Civil War; rather, they operated in small, isolated, and fortified units, and all territory beyond a fort’s walls had to be considered hostile” (Custer: Lessons in Leadership by Duane Schultz, 2010, p. 181).

Custer, like other Civil War veterans certainly had his difficulties adjusting to the Indian wars. However, plaguing Custer was a much deeper leadership problem. Unlike during the Civil War where his men idolized him and were committed to following him into the worst of battles, the 7th Cavalry troopers (and many of its officers) despised him in 1876. Although the 7th Cavalry marched under one pennant, it was far from a well-oiled, fine-tuned, cohesive unit.

In a recent issue of the Civil War magazine, The Civil War Monitor (Winter 2011) historian Glenn LaFantasie analyzed why Custer experienced such different relationships with his various commands. During the Civil War Custer commanded volunteer regiments from Michigan. These soldiers knew each other, often coming from the same towns. They were motivated by a sense of patriotism and, although they forever maintained the free spirit of volunteer soldiers, as the war wore on they developed a true professionalism. Custer realized that these men had to be inspired and inspire them he did. With his courage and daring Custer was the perfect role model for them.

The cavalry of the Indian war was a different reality. Many of the soldiers were immigrants – some of whom barely spoke English. They joined the army not out of a sense of duty or patriotism but as a means of escaping their wretched economic existence. Other soldiers were criminals and social outcasts who fled proper society. Even those soldiers who were veterans of the Civil War remained in the army or rejoined because they could not readjust to civilian life. “There was no cohesion as had existed in Civil War regiments drawn from a single state…The men of Custer’s 7th Cavalry, including the officers, had nothing in common, nothing that bound them together…” (p.32). Custer was never able to find a way to inspire them…so he stopped trying. It was under these conditions that he led his men to defeat at the Little Big Horn.

Among Custer’s character flaws was his inability to look inward. When a problem arose he blamed others. In the case of the 7th Cavalry he never considered that he needed to find a new way to inspire his troops. He just assumed that what had worked during the Civil War would work in the Indian war as well. Fortunately for Bnei Yisrael when Moshe Rabbeinu was faced with a similar situation of not successfully inspiring his people, he became introspective and accepted responsibility.

The Torah relates at the beginning of the parsha that Hashem described to Moshe His plan for Bnei Yisrael. He would first take them out of Egypt and ultimately bring them to Eretz Yisrael where they would serve Hashem as the successors to the legacy of the Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Moshe immediately delivered the prophecy to his brethren but was met with a disappointing response. The pasuk states (6:9): “And Moshe spoke thus to Bnei Yisrael but they did not respond to (literally hear) Moshe due to their shortness of spirit and the hard labor.”

Parshat Mikeitz

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

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.

A classic example of this is the 24-hour period following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. To capture the historic significance of this day, historian Steven Gillon recently published the book, Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation into War, (2011), which focuses on FDR’s crisis management from the time he heard about the attack on December 7 until his speech to Congress on December 8 requesting a declaration of war.

Today we look back to that time with an air of inevitability. However, nothing was inevitable that day. FDR had to be forthright with the American people but not too open as to cause panic and rush to submission. He needed to galvanize the country for war, not only against Japan, but against Germany as well, without allowing his comments to focus on Germany, since many Americans still viewed the war in Europe as a European problem. Some of the most important decisions he made during those 24 hours concerned the speech he would give to Congress on December 8.

Cordell Hull, the Secretary of State, opined that the speech should be a relatively long statement presenting to the American people the entire history of America’s relations with Japan and all the Japanese actions leading to war – culminating with the attack on Pearl Harbor. FDR, however, for effect, wanted to keep the speech short. He was a firm believer that less was more. FDR also worried that a longer speech would force him to reveal more details about the losses at Pearl Harbor, which would serve both to dishearten the American people and embolden the Japanese. He was afraid that once the Japanese realized how badly damaged the American military was they would strike at the United States mainland. He also realized, according to Gillon, “that focusing too much attention on the Pacific would limit his ability to lead the nation to war in Europe” (p.149).

Perhaps some of the most important decisions of that day revolved around the actual writing and editing of the speech, which FDR did himself. The original speech was dictated to his secretary with the following first sentence. “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941—a day which will live in world history—the United States of America was simultaneously and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

When FDR reviewed the typed remarks, he made some handwritten tweaks. The words “world history” were replaced by the more emotion filled word infamy and the word “simultaneously” was replaced with the more frightening word suddenly. As Gillon writes: “Thus was born one of the most famous lines in presidential oratory” (p.72). Later that night, when meeting with his aid and confidante Harry Hopkins, he added the following closure at the Hopkin’s suggestion: “With confidence in our armed forces—with the unbounding determination of our people—we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us G-d.”

The importance of recognizing an immense opportunity contained in a small amount of time, and maintaining control in order to take full advantage of the situation, is seen at the beginning of this week’s parsha when Yosef is hurriedly summoned to appear before Pharoh to interpret his dreams.

After Pharoh related his dream to his advisors and failed to receive a satisfactory explanation for it, the chief butler informed him about Yosef and his powers of dream interpretation. The Torah describes (41:14) that Pharoh sent immediately for Yosef. Due to the extreme urgency of the situation Yosef was rushed out of the dungeon. For Yosef, the next 24 hours or so were of critical importance. He had several key decisions to make—decisions that would impact his future and the future of Bnei Yisrael.

Upon being released from prison, the Torah informs us, Yosef groomed himself and changed into attire appropriate for Pharoh’s court. Rashi explains that Yosef did this out of respect for the monarchy. Later commentators expand upon Rashi’s point. According to various commentators there were halachic problems with Yosef grooming himself in an Egyptian hairstyle and dressing in accordance with Egyptian custom. However, the halachic tradition permits certain allowances for people who must interact with the secular rulers. Yosef’s first decision, as it were, was whether to rely on these allowances and demonstrate his ability to blend in or rather to maintain his separatist image.

The second decision he had to make was how to respond when Pharoh credited him with being an outstanding dream interpreter. Although he had much to gain by accepting the praise, Yosef’s integrity and fear of Hashem compelled him to acknowledge publicly that he was but a simple agent of G-d. His third decision was not to limit his words to merely interpreting Pharoh’s dreams but to dare to reach beyond his mandate as a dream interpreter and suggest a policy to guard against the dangers of the predicted famine.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/parsha/parshat-mikeitz/2011/12/22/

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