Washington, Lincoln, & Moses
Rabbi Douglas Kohn
To me, Presidents’ Day—our national holiday which falls this month—is a fascinating day. And, it has a little concern…
I remember when, as a child, we marked Washington’s Birthday on February 22, and Lincoln’s birthday on February 12. And, I recall the shift to celebrating both presidents on the third Monday in February, made law during the Nixon administration. Initially, the day was designated to celebrate all of our presidents (an ironic legacy of Nixon that he is included in that bucket!) and to simplify and make uniform our then-disparate celebrations in America.
Yet, for me, I venerate the meaning, bearing and legacies of our great American presidents, yet I recognize the care with which we, as a nation, have taken not to elevate our elected chief executive beyond his (or her) station. Washington, for instance, wished to be called “Mr. President, not “His Highness,” in contradistinction to salutations to kings of the 18th century. Presidents were mortals, Washington taught, and must pass the mantel of leadership, and the trappings of their position, upon the expiration of their terms.
And, for me as a rabbi, I similarly note that Torah is careful not to elevate Moses to any rank higher than “lawgiver” so he would not be revered as divine. He, also, was a mere mortal, though he was as great in our Jewish history as Washington is in America’s history. Indeed, upon Moses’ death at the end of Deuteronomy, he died alone—except with God—in the hills, “and no one knows his burial place to this day.” (Deut. 34:6) The secrecy of his sepulcher is not to create mystery or to deify the man—rather, it is the opposite, so that Jews would not rush to his grave, create a shrine, and endeavor to invoke his spirit. His death was the death of a mortal.
And, thus, as we celebrate the birthdays of our great leaders this month, I do so with profound appreciation and respect for the nation which they built and led, but with just a moment of pause. It should not be the birth of Washington, Adams, Jeﬀerson, Monroe, Madison, Lincoln, Teddy, Wilson, FDR or JFK which we celebrate, but rather their achievements and the moral models, leadership, and teachings which they left for the generations of Americans which have followed after them. Marking the birthdays of leaders risks mistaking their birth with their leadership. In North Korea they celebrate the birthday of the Leader. In America, we strive to do justly and devote at least one day to honoring their deeds.
I imagine it is what Washington would have wanted. Likely, it is more than what Moses would have wanted.
Rabbi Douglas Kohn