Do you remember where you were exactly 50 years ago yesterday, on November 22nd, 1963? If you’re under 55, then you don’t remember and that probably excludes most of you. But I remember it like it was yesterday. It was after school—the NY high schools then were on split session and I finished school at 1:00pm and rode my bike home for lunch. I made lunch and turned on the TV to hear perhaps the most horrible news story of my life: President John Kennedy was shot! It was a shot that changed the world forever.
Jeff Greenfield, in his new book, If Kennedy Lived, asks us to consider what might have happened on that ill-fated day if the rain hadn’t stopped in Dallas…if the Secret Service had decided to keep the bubble-top on the 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible that carried President John F. Kennedy through Dealey Plaza.
If President Kennedy had lived, we probably would not have escalated our commitment to a war in Viet Nam. The whole protest movement of the 60’s and 70’s would not have come to pass. A whole generation that became distrustful of government and the “establishment” might have instead continued to be inspired by this president who challenged them in his inaugural address: And so my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you…ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you…but what together we can do for the freedom of man. It was all so inspiring, so eloquent, even magical.
With Kennedy’s death we lost that. We lost the feeling that things will always be good—that since America was the greatest power on earth for good, nothing could go wrong. This was a generation of the baby boomers, like me. Our parents had lived through the Great Depression and World War II. America was finally at peace and, therefore, everything was possible because we were in control. Even though Kennedy was elected by a thin majority, he spoke to us and inspired us all when he said: Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage...Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty. This much we pledge—and more.
In a flash of a bullet all this changed. The hope and promise, the innocence of the 1950’s gave way to cynicism and despair. As we remember this tragic assassination this week, let us remember as well how fragile life is—that it can change in a flash, in a moment.
It happened to Joseph in today’s parsha. One moment he was the favorite son with his coat of many colors and the next he was thrown into a pit filled with snakes and scorpions by his brothers who ignored his cries as they sat and ate their lunch. He was finally rescued by a passing caravan who sold him into slavery in Egypt. One minute he was on top of the world and the next he was on the very bottom. That’s how life can be sometimes.
Joseph was a dreamer and in a flash his dreams were squashed. John Kennedy was also a dreamer and, unlike Joseph who eventually got to see his dreams fulfilled, his death ended not only his dreams, but the dreams of a generation. Unlike Joseph, whose coat was dipped in blood by his brothers to trick their father into believing he was dead, Jacqueline Kennedy’s dress was dipped in her husband blood as the shots were fired and there was no mistaking the truth—Camelot had ended.
Kennedy was loved by Jews for many reasons, not the least was that he was certainly more ready to help Israel than his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower with his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles who was no great friend of the Jews. Eisenhower had forced Israel to withdraw from the successful capture of the Sinai and Suez Canal in 1956 after Egypt had nationalize the canal, taking control from a French company that ran the canal, then blockading all trade with Israel. At that time it was France that was arming Israel—not America!
Golda Meir, then Israel’s Foreign Minister, came in 1961 with an urgent request for advanced weapons that only the US had—Hawk missiles for the Israeli Air Force. According to Elie Weisel in his book, A Jew Today, Kennedy initially said “no,” but eventually succumbed to Golda’s persistent nudging. She was such a wonderful Jewish grandmother! That began a strategic relationship between America and Israel that continues till today—52 years of American military, diplomatic and financial support through thick and thin…helping to make the State of Israel the most powerful country in the Middle East. It all started with John F. Kennedy and 52 years later on his yarzheit, we should remember that.
Today’s Torah portion begins: Vayeyshev Yaakov, “And Jacob settled down.” Finally, finally he was able to settle down and find some peace in his life. He was back home with his family. He no longer had to deal with a father-in-law constantly trying to cheat him. He made peace with his brother who was trying to kill him. He was at peace and finally could enjoy life and his family. However, it was not to last, as we see in the saga of Joseph, his favorite child. Rashi, comments, Bikeysh Yaakov leyshev b’shalvah, “Jacob sought to settle down,” kafeytz alav rugzo shel Yosef, “immediately he was confronted with the aggravation of Joseph.” What’s the lesson? Rashi tells us: Eyn shalvah l’tzadikim ba-olam hazeh, “there is no rest for the righteous in this world.” There is always something, no matter how good we are. We don’t live in Camelot. We live in the real world and there is so much in this world that is beyond our control, so much is just a matter of chance. Our lives can be change forever in a moment! But why is that?
According to Kabbalah, the purpose of life is not to be happy—although this is what most parents want for their children. The purpose of life is to grow, develop and perfect your soul! Growth comes from challenge, and that is why life is constantly challenging us. Sometimes that challenge happens in an instant and nothing is ever the same. What is of ultimate importance is how we respond to the challenge. Do we become depressed, immobilized and moan our fate because life has changed? The best response to life’s challenges is to ask ourselves: “What am I supposed to learn from this?”
That’s what Joseph did. Instead of crying over his fate as a slave, he learned to put aside the spoiled, cocky self he had become and instead, he became a light of goodness. He then quickly rose from hapless slave to become head of his master’s household. But glimpses of his cockiness started to reappear as he became more and more impressed by his own handsomeness. The Midrash tells us he was so handsome women would climb walls just to get a look at him. Life then threw another curve at him. He was falsely accused of raping his master’s wife and thrown into prison. Having time to contemplate his fate in the dungeon, he finally learned his lesson and rose to become head of the prison, eventually becoming the prime minister of Egypt. It was a rocky road but Joseph eventually learned that he was not entitled to the good life just because of his birth or his good looks, but that he had to earn it with intelligence, hard work and goodness.
Jacqueline Kennedy said to a friend shortly before she died from cancer, “I don’t get it…I did everything right to take care of myself and look what happened? Why in the world did I do all those push-ups?” Perhaps she asked the wrong question. Perhaps she should have asked: “What am I supposed to learn from this?”
50 years ago America was basking in a time of peace and tranquility, of strength and hope. John Kennedy appeared and inspired us with his vitality and action, youthfulness and dynamism. Tragically, we learned what Jacob learned: Eyn shalva l’tzadikim ba-olam hazeh, “There is no rest for the righteous in this world.” Life will always challenge us. But our tradition also teaches us: Tzadikim b’mitotam k’ru-im chaim, “The righteous, even in their death are still alive.”
John F. Kennedy is gone but so much of what he started lives on. He made civil rights a top priority for this country. He faced down the menacing Soviet Union. He showed his skeptics that you can help the economy by reducing taxes. And he was the 1st Catholic president—showing the world you don’t have to be a white male protestant to run for high office. I’m sure both Joseph Lieberman and Barak Obama appreciate that.
Kennedy’s legacy survives and continues to inspire. But the lesson for us from his tragic demise should be to face the challenges of life with resolve to learn from them so that we can grow and develop our souls. Our country is divided as never before, let us be inspired by Kennedy’s words once more to come together—words like: And so my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you…ask what you can do for your country…ask not what America will do for you…but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Y’hi zichro baruch, may President John F. Kennedy’s name ever be a blessing. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis