A Moment with a Teacher

If we’re lucky, we have moments with teachers that stay with us for life. One such moment is on my mind this weekend.
I was sitting on the bimah at Park Synagogue in Cleveland with our esteemed rabbi emeritus, Armond Cohen, z”l. I was a member of the Ohio Senate at the time. Rabbi Cohen and I should probably have been listening to the hazzan, but he loved to talk politics, and so we kibitzed.

The conversation veered into the subject of rituals in politics. We talked about the language we use on the floor of legislatures to describe our colleagues – even those we dislike – as “my friend from Columbus” or the “distinguished Senator from Cincinnati.” And we talked about the care we take in maintaining our civic buildings – the State Capital, the County Courthouse, and more.

Suddenly, Rabbi Cohen grew very serious, and, waving his arms around the sanctuary, talked about how the rituals of Jewish prayer are crafted to help us maintain our focus and our decorum before our fellow worshipers and before God, to help us distinguish what is important and indelible from what is temporary and passing, and to inspire us to protect and defend our heritage and our world. He grabbed his tzitzit – the fringes on his tallit – and recited from the Shema “when you look at the fringes you will be reminded of all of God’s commandments.”

“Ritual”, he declared, “is our connective tissue. It holds us together.”

Why can’t I get Rabbi Cohen’s lesson out of my mind this weekend? Because in the coming days we have a chance to observe two civic rituals in America – one relatively new, and one as old as the country.

On Monday we observed the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In what is fast becoming a powerful and unifying ritual, many of us observed the day not only by remembering Dr. King, his lessons and his work, but also by engaging in a “Day of Service.” It is not enough, in Dr. King’s memory, to take a day off from work or school. We understand instinctively it must be a day infused with meaning, with service. And so we are building a new civic ritual.

On Wednesday we will observe Inauguration Day and witness the transfer of power from the Trump Administration to the Biden Administration in a ceremony that has occurred every four years for two and a half centuries, since George Washington took the first oath of office in 1789.

I had the chance to witness this ritual up close once as a member of Congress. The ceremony will be presided over by a bi-partisan committee of the Congress. The oath will be administered by the Chief Justice of the United States, after which the new president will receive a military salute. He will be hosted at a traditional lunch inside the Capitol, and then paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. This ritual is exactly the same whether a new president is sworn in for the first time, an incumbent president is reelected, or a challenger defeats an incumbent. I was there when a challenger beat an incumbent, a fact many on the dais were definitely not happy about.

There have been some new elements added to this ritual to suit the tastes of different presidents. John F. Kennedy famously added a poetry reading by Robert Frost, and this quickly became a new tradition. Ronald Reagan moved the ceremony from the east front of the Capitol to the west, both to accommodate more spectators and so he could take the oath gazing out to the west, across the great expanse of America and to his home state of California. This, too, is now a tradition. Perhaps in this pandemic year, president-elect Biden will introduce new elements that will come to be part of the ritual.

These civic rituals are, in Rabbi Cohen’s words, our nation’s “connective tissue. They hold us together.” Need I say that we, at this time, should take every available opportunity to remind ourselves of the ties that hold us together as a nation.

So let us all join in observing these moving civic rituals. As we do, let us think deeply about the lessons they have been designed to teach us.

This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post. Eric D. Fingerhut is President & CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America.