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Happy Presidents Day

A look into the significance of the public holiday.

 

“I earnestly pray that the Omnipotent Being who has not deserted the cause of America in the hour of its extremist hazard, will never yield so fair a heritage of freedom a prey to "Anarchy" or "Despotism"” – President George Washington

As our country prepares to enjoy the Presidents Day long weekend, I began reading about the significance of this holiday and focused on George Washington.

In the Jewish tradition, the holidays  are not meant to be simply a commemoration; rather, we are taught to do our utmost to absorb ourselves in the depth of the holiday, as if it were the very first time that we are making note of the important day.  

For example, when Passover, the holiday of the exodus, comes around, we are meant to reexamine the dreadfulness of slavery, not just as a slave to others but also what it means to be a slave to flawed ideas, and then explore the wonderful gift of freedom.

Until 1971, we celebrated President George Washington’s Birthday on February 22.   It was only later to become known as Presidents Day -- the third Monday of February -- to incorporate the observance of President Lincolns birthday-- but mainly so this observance can always allow us to enjoy a long holiday weekend.

Our country was truly blessed to have such profoundly, intelligent and truly caring leaders as her founders. How easy is it for us to forget the tyranny that existed in most governing systems of that time. For most countries, the rule of law was mostly left at the mercy of tyrannical leaders. On the other hand, George Washington, the first person elected to the office of President of the United States of America, was an inspiration.

Only very recently did I become aware of a heartfelt interchange, between a Jewish congregation and President Washington. The timing of this interchange is especially important to any student of Jewish history. At that time, the treatment of Jews in most countries was filled with anti-Semitism.  

President Washington's correspondence established these key points:  (a) America's leader recognized G-d, but (b) not any particular church or religion, and (c) respected and appreciated the Jewish people. If you have not read this interchange before, I am posting it below. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

May G-d bless the United States of America

Shabbat Shalom!

------

On August 17, 1790, Moses Seixas, the warden of Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, better known as the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, penned an epistle to George Washington, welcoming the newly elected first president of the United States on his visit to that city.

Newport had suffered greatly during the Revolutionary War. Invaded and occupied by the British and blockaded by the American navy, hundreds of residents fled, and many of those who remained were Tories. After the British defeat, the Tories fled in turn.:

Sir,

Permit the children of the Stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person & merits and to join with our fellow Citizens in welcoming you to New Port.

With pleasure we reflect on those days—those days of difficulty, & danger when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword, shielded your head in the day of battle: and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States.

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now (with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events) behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People--a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance--but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine: This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual Confidence and Public Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies Of Heaven and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good.

For all the Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal and benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Antient of Days, the great preserver of Men--beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: and, when like Joshua full of days and full of honor, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.

Done and Signed by Order of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island

Moses Seixas, Warden

 

To which President George Washington responded:

Gentlemen:

While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens. The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.

If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people. The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy--a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants--while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington

Mr. Malibu February 17, 2012 at 04:17 PM
Dear Rabbi Cunin, Thank you for sharing this exchange! It clearly shows Moses Seixas and the congregation of Newport to be keenly vigilant of the need to protect our rights from bigotry, and the recognition of civil and religious liberty. In today's world, this consciousness must be global. George Washington openly shared his love and respect for the Jewish community to set an example for all future presidents. I know that Jewish mothers in the US and Israel, as well as Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindi mothers do not want US war with Iran and I know Iranian mothers do not want war either. On this Presidents Day I pray that all the religious leaders can join the Jewish tradition and practice of ardently working for Peace and Liberty for all.

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