What a momentous week we witnessed in January when Donald Trump was inaugurated as president. It was a week that could 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 Trump as the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
Along with snide comments about “sending in the clowns,” I saw and heard versions of that 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?
All week before the presidential inauguration, 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 first celebrity to move into the White House. He’s nonetheless the first reality-show personality, and he’s so unpredictable that sometimes it seems he suffers from foot-in-mouth disease.
Liat Collins commented 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 in celebration of the hallmark of American democracy: a peaceful transition of power and leadership. However, an unprecedented number of members of Congress boycotted the inauguration while demonstrators tried to disrupt it.
George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, is no fan of Donald Trump’s. 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, was in a hospital in Houston with a bout of pneumonia during the inauguration, while his wife, Barbara, was also in the hospital with bronchitis.
Even before their hospitalization, Bush 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. He’s one classy guy. He sent this letter to 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 H.W. Bush’s. When he was president, he gave Israel such a hard time. But this gracious message to Trump, whom he didn’t vote for, sends a message we all need to hear: We are all Americans, so let’s treat one another — regardless of who voted for whom — with graciousness, civility and kindness.
Let me share with you an issue that lighted up the kosher world about this inauguration. Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, had a major problem the night of Friday, Jan. 20. As you know, they’re Orthodox Jews — Sabbath observers — and Shabbos on Inauguration Day began in Washington at 4:58 p.m.
As high-level advisers to the president, it was important that they be at many of the celebrations. Yes, it might have been possible to walk from place to place, but would it have been safe?
Jared and Ivanka asked their rabbi — I assume it was Rabbi Haskell Lookstein from their shul in New York, Kehilath Jeshurun, whom I have known for some 40 years — who gave them permission to ride in a car (or more probably a limo) on Friday evening after the inauguration to protect their safety.
Lifesaving measures, such as the work of surgeons and soldiers, are permitted on Shabbos 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 Jan. 20 that year was on Shabbos.
On the other hand, in 2009, the Connecticut senator trekked five 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.”
I hope someone got a photo of Ivanka and Jared making Kiddush and Motzi at one of the inaugural balls. What a Kiddush Hashem (a sanctification of G-d’s name) this is — to have religious Jews as part of the first family.
On the day after the inauguration, we began a new book of the Torah — Shemot/Exodus — just as our country began a new book in its history — the first full day of the presidency of Donald Trump.
The parshah that day 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. Likewise, a new leader has arisen over America, the most powerful man in our world.
The new Pharaoh in our parshah 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 second most powerful man in the world. Joseph singlehandedly 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 G-d, it seems to be a different kind of agenda: “To make America great again,” whatever that means. We will see what happens over the next four years.
I can only say what I said the week after Barack Obama was first elected president: “Barack Obama is not just to be the president of black Americans or Democratic 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 (Genesis 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 Barack Obama then, I now pray: May the circus atmosphere of Donald Trump end now, just as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is ending. And may G-d 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 is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim. This column is adapted from the sermon he delivered Jan. 21.