What a momentous week we have witnessed. It has been a week that can change history. After 100 years, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is closing! Why is it closing down? Because—as many pundits suggest—it just couldn’t compete with Donald Trump as the “Greatest Show on Earth.” Along with snide comments about “sending in the clowns,” I’ve seen and heard various versions of this joke all week. But regardless of our nostalgic feelings about the circus from childhood, the reason for its closing is obvious. How many times have you bought a ticket for the circus in the past 20 years?
The presidential inauguration was yesterday. All week people were speculating, who’s going? Who’s boycotting? Who’s singing and what? Donald Trump, of course, knows how to put on a show. He’s not the 1st celebrity to move into the White House. He’s nonetheless the 1st reality-show personality…and he’s so unpredictable that sometimes it seems he suffers from foot-in-mouth disease.
Liat Collins comments in the Jerusalem Post: In a world that craves stability, we are receiving instead a promise that this presidency won’t be boring…With his orange hair and show-off manner, it’s easy to satirize Trump as a clown. He’s not…His dramatic entrance into the White House marks a new era. He’s not all-powerful, but his impact should not be underestimated.
The past few years have been a time of great divisiveness in our country. The inauguration of a new president is usually a time for the country to come together celebrating the hallmark of American democracy: a peaceful transition of power and leadership. However, yesterday, an unprecedented number of members of Congress boycotted the inauguration as demonstrators tried to disrupt.
George Bush Sr.—the 41st president—is no fan of Donald Trump. At the beginning of the primaries Trump came down hard on his son Jeb who was then favored to win. In fact, according to reports, Bush 41 voted for Hillary Clinton. Bush Sr., who is 92 years old, is now in a hospital in Houston with a bout of pneumonia while his wife Barbara is also in the hospital with bronchitis. We pray for their good health. Yet even before their hospitalization, Bush Sr. was not well enough to attend the inauguration. He could have easily gotten away with a press release informing everyone that he was not well enough to attend.
Say what you want about George Bush Sr. He’s one classy guy. He sent this letter to Donald Trump:
Barbara and I are so sorry we can’t be there for your Inauguration on January 20th. My doctor says if I sit outside in January, it likely will put me 6 ft. under. Same for Barbara. So I guess we’re stuck in Texas. But we will be with you and the country in spirit. I want you to know that I wish you the very best as you begin this incredible journey of leading our great country. If I can ever be of help, please let me know.
Now I’m no fan of George Bush Sr. When he was president he gave Israel such a hard time. But this gracious message to Donald Trump—whom he didn’t vote for—sends a message we all need to hear: We are all Americans, so let’s treat each other—regardless of who voted for whom—with graciousness, civility and kindness.
Let me share with you an issue that has lit up the kosher world about this inauguration. Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner had a major problem last night. As you know, they’re orthodox Jews—Sabbath observers—and Shabbos began yesterday in Washington DC at 4:58pm. As high level advisors to the President, it was important that they be at many of the celebrations. Yes, it might be possible to walk from place to place but would it be safe?
Jared and Ivanka asked their rabbi—I assume it was Rabbi Haskell Lookstein from their shul in NY, Kehilath Jeshurun, whom I know for some 40 years—who gave them permission to ride in a car (or more probably a limo) on Friday evening following the inauguration in order to protect their safety. Life-saving measures, such as the work of surgeons or soldiers, are permitted on Shabbos, as you know, because of the Jewish law of pikuach nefesh, or protection of life which overrides the commandments of the Torah. And there is much literature in Jewish law devoted to leniencies for “court Jews.”
This was a very serious issue for them. As Ivanka—who has taken the Hebrew name Yael—told Vogue Magazine in an interview (March 2015): We observe the Sabbath. From Friday to Saturday we don’t do anything but hang out with one another. We don’t make phone calls. Shabbat provides a blueprint for family connectivity in that it protects time for us to spend with family. It’s an amazing thing when you’re so connected, to really sign off…and for Arabella (her oldest child) to know that she has me, undivided, one day a week. We don’t do anything except play with each other, hang out with one another, go on walks together. Pure family!
Joe Lieberman might have faced the same dilemma in 2001 had butterfly ballots in Florida bent the other way because January 20th was then on Shabbos. On the other hand, in 2009, the Connecticut senator trekked 5 miles on a snowy Saturday afternoon to vote on health care amendments for the Senate. As Lieberman said: “I have a responsibility to my constituents, really to my conscience, to be here on something as important as health care reform.”
Hopefully someone will have gotten a pic of Ivanka and Jared making Kiddush and Motzi at one of the inauguration balls. What a Kiddush Hashem (a sanctification of Gd’s Name) this is—to have religious Jews as part of the 1st family.
Today we began a new book of the Torah—Shemot/Exodus—just as our country begins a new book in its history—the 1st full day of the Presidency of Donald Trump. Today’s parsha tells us: Vayakam melech chadash al Mitzrayim (A new king arose over Egypt). He was to be the Pharaoh—the most powerful man in the ancient world. Today a new leader arises over America—the most powerful man in our world. The new Pharaoh in our parsha came into power with a definite agenda. The Torah tells us: lo yada et Yosef (he did not know Joseph). He didn’t know Joseph? Joseph was the lowly Hebrew slave who rose to become the Prime Minister of Egypt—the 2nd most powerful man in the world. Joseph single-handedly saved Egypt from starvation and economic ruin. How was it possible that the Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph? Of course he knew who Joseph was. But he didn’t want to know—to be beholden to him and his people. He wanted to use them for his own benefit and enslave them.
Donald Trump also comes to power with an agenda, but, thank Gd, it seems to be a very different kind of agenda—“To Make America Great Again”—whatever that means. We will see what happens over the next 4 years. I can only say what I said the week after Barak Obama was 1st elected president: Barack Obama is not just to be the President of black Americans or Democrat Americans or liberal Americans. He is to be my President…and yours. Let us all pray that someday, through him, we will see fulfilled the promise made to Abraham (Gen. 12:2-3): “I will make of thee a great nation and I will bless thee and make thy name great and be thou a blessing. And I will bless them that bless thee and those that cursed thee will I curse. And in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”
As I prayed for Barak Obama then I now pray: May the circus atmosphere of presidential candidate Donald Trump end this week—just as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus ended this week. And may Gd bestow upon the presidency of Donald Trump the blessing of Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you…in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis