Wednesday was a historic day in American history. Joseph R. Biden, Jr. became the 46th President of the United States of America. In addition, Kamala Harris is the first female (how important is it for little girls AND boys to see her in this role), African-American, Asian-American Vice-President. I believe that every inauguration day is special, no matter who is elected. It is our democracy in action with a clear roadmap in how our country manages leadership transitions. I wish our country’s new leaders only great success in their efforts for our country.
This is also the first time in history that the Secretary of State (Anthony Blinken), Treasury Secretary (Janet Yellen), Attorney General (Merrick Garland), and Senate Majority Leader (Chuck Schumer) are all Jews at the same time. And the press has made a big deal that President Biden’s leadership team will include more than a minyan, including an old friend, Gary Gensler, the new head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who I took on a trip to Israel in 2001.
There are also nine Jews in the new Senate and 25 in the House of Representatives, making up more than 6 percent of the total Congress. That’s more than triple the percentage of Jews in the general population. There are also two Jews out of the nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court.
And we cannot forget the personal Jewish connections for both the President and Vice-President. All three of President Biden’s children married into Jewish families making him a zayde (Jewish grandfather). And, Vice-President Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff, is Jewish, as are all his children.
I know my grandmother would be kvelling.
Let me be fair and acknowledge that other administrations, including President Trump's, have had large number of Jews in senior leadership positions.
Columnist Jonathan Tobin wrote this week, “What ought to matter to the Jewish community is not the number of Jews or people with Jewish relatives there are in any administration, but whether they act in a manner that makes both the United States and the Jewish people more secure.”
Four years ago, prior to President Obama finishing his term in office, Rabbi Joseph Skloot, now a professor at Hebrew Union College, shared an important lesson about political succession.
Moses is told by G-d to select Joshua as his successor. The Torah states, “Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the whole community, and commission him in their sight. Invest him with some of your authority, so that the whole Israelite community may obey" (Numbers 27:18-20).
How did Moses feel after leading the Jewish people for so long and now being told to find his successor? Angry? Or, maybe comforted knowing that there would be a smooth political transition, free of upheaval and discord?
Over the last two centuries, various traditions have emerged commemorating our transition of leadership at the inauguration. On January 20th, there is typically (if not for COVID) a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue with thousands and thousands of people; ceremonies on the Capitol steps; the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court administers the presidential oath of office; prayers, poetry (Amanda Gorman was so impressive), and speeches; all followed by fancy festivities. In perhaps the most intimate of inauguration rituals, the former President leaves a private letter for the new one in the Oval Office.
None of these events, except for the oath, is prescribed by the United States Constitution. Yet, we -- our leaders and the people they lead -- need these rituals. We need them for the same reason that the Israelites needed to see Moses "commissioning" Joshua with their own eyes.
Moses understood that transitions of power are not just parades, speeches, and formalities to keep people cheering. Rather, transitions of power require the important task of outlining what has been done, and what remains to be accomplished. In this way, true comfort during these transitions is found not in ritual, but in those strong, determined leaders who demonstrate, without fear, their willingness to embrace the trials that lay ahead.
In turbulent times like these, what we need is an honest assessment of where the country and its people truly stand. Before we can improve our country, we must acknowledge that it needs improving. While there is little comfort in this, we can draw significant comfort from leaders who recognize the difficult paths before us and who articulate an unwavering commitment to walk those paths with us.” Those words are as true today as they were when written over four years ago.
Wednesday was important on so many levels. Most of all, at this time, we need to truly see that our leaders respect the basic institutions of government. We need to observe the transfer of power and know that one generation's leadership has given way to another -- peacefully.
As President Biden said in his speech, “We will lead not by the example of our power but by the power of our example.”
Let me end with the closing stanza from Amanda Gorman's magnificent poem:
When day comes, we step out of the shade,
Aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it,
For there is always light,
If only we're brave enough to see it,
if only we're brave enough to be it.
Whether optimistic or anxious, especially in these divisive times, tomorrow is full of the possibility for renewal, change, and bright light.