Rabbi's Weekly Teaching
Friday, January 4, 2013
My family and I finally had the opportunity to go and see Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln". President Lincoln has always been my personal favorite and in my rabbinic study, amidst several different eras of American flags, is his portrait.
I am inspired by Lincoln's wisdom, leadership and personal faith. It's the latter, which for some, has been questioned. Lincoln was not a believer in a specific form of a Christian institutional religion. He never belonged to a specific church, and his documented belief in God was universalistic.
Perhaps it's Lincoln's non-orthodox Christianity that I find personally appealing as an American Jew. He was able to witness God, not by a limited particularistic lens, but rather with a multi-focal, ethical monotheistic prescription, much in the same way as his biblical patriarchal namesake, Abraham.
Lincoln perceived that within our world there is right from wrong, and certain truths are in fact self-evident. While Lincoln's Gettysburg address of 1863 is the most familiar to us; his words were anchored in previously stated beliefs. In 1858, during a speech at Lewistown, Illinois, he noted regarding the framers of the Declaration of Independence:
These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows. They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity. They erected a beacon to guide their children and their children's children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages. Wise statesmen as they were, they knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants, and so they established these great self-evident truths, that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began -- so that truth, and justice, and mercy, and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from the land; so that no man would hereafter dare to limit and circumscribe the great principles on which the temple of liberty was being built.
Lincoln's citation of "Christian virtues" is still his own era's bias. They are in fact the virtues as witnessed by Abraham the Patriarch and taught moving forward to all his children.
Lincoln's personal faith was grounded within the attribute of humility; cited as the preeminent attribute of Moses within our Torah. In 1862, President Lincoln was visited by Eliza Gurney and three of her Quaker friends. Eliza had come with no agenda other than to express her belief that President Lincoln was "an instrument of God". Lincoln was moved by the sincere prayerful intentions of his visitors and he said to them as they departed: "... I have desired that all my words and actions may be in accordance with His will; but if, after endeavoring to do my best with the light which He affords me, I find my efforts fail, then I must believe that, for some purpose unknown to me, He wills it otherwise. If I had had my way, this war would never have been; but, nevertheless, it came. If I had had my way, the war would have ended before this; but, nevertheless, it still continues. We must conclude that He permits it for some wise purpose, though we may not be able to comprehend it; for we cannot but believe that He who made the world still governs it....."
Steven Spielberg's movie, Lincoln, captures our faithful imagination. The choice to focus the cinematic tale on the 13th amendment to outlaw slavery was very effective. Like "Schindler's List", "Amistad", and "Saving Private Ryan", one particular story helps us gain insight into the larger narrative. Watching what is Spielberg's cinematic midrash, one can ponder both the historical reality of fact and the inherited individual and collective consequences of Lincoln's legacy. Who was this great man? What drove him? What were his strengths and weaknesses, and during this time of greatest challenge, how did he choose accordingly, in awareness or lack of awareness, to his strengths and weaknesses?
Beside the portrayal of Lincoln, Spielberg's other "characters" were thought provoking. Thaddeus Stevens, the radical abolitionist, forced to compromise in his spoken word so as to achieve effective objectives was especially powerful. In the aftermath of the "fiscal cliff" political debate, it was a helpful reminder to realize that compromise to achieve something, sometimes can be the more effective choice than non-compromise and achieving nothing.
Lincoln was a politician; suited for his office. Like the war-time Churchill, most recognize Lincoln as being ideally chosen; perhaps by God, and certainly by the majority vote of America's eligible citizenry of the time. Legend and fact may not be congruent. But, there is the historical reality of what we now have within our country as opposed to what existed before. Self-evident truths are now much better codified as the law of the land. In Lincoln's era there were limitations in the scope of vision. In our era, our own limitations still exist; we still struggle to see God's image equally in the faces of all human beings. But, we are doing a much better job with our divine prescription.
Lincoln inspires us, as Abraham the patriarch inspires us. Every leader who truly becomes an "instrument of God" can inspire us. This is an instrument that will see no exceptions to all human beings created equally; even amidst our own prejudicial discomfort.
Our God and God of our ancestors: We ask Your blessings for our country, for its government, for its leader and advisors, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority. Teach them insights of Your Torah that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst. Creator of all flesh, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your spirit. May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony to banish all hatred and bigotry and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions which are the pride and glory of our country. May this land under Your Providence be an influence for good throughout the world, uniting all people in peace and freedom and helping them to fulfill the vision of your prophet: "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they experience war any more." And let us say: Amen. (Rabbi Louis Ginzberg's Prayer for our Country - adapted.
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