I'm standing in the White House, near the presidential podium. The room is packed with invited guests from every part of the United States, each one of these fortunate people the bearer of a personal invitation from President and Michelle Obama to attend the annual White House Hanukkah party.
The invitation arrived as an email a month prior. With no special announcement, I first thought it might be spam. But a phone call to the White House confirmed that it was an actual invitation, non-transferrable, good for myself and for one selected guest. When I told my wife of the email, she immediately made it clear that we were going to Washington, D.C. I had found my selected guest!
We arrived in the Capitol the night before the event, arriving at the southeast corner of the White House as the invitation had instructed, a half hour prior to the opening of the doors. Already the line of assembled rabbis, scholars, community activists, authors, and organizational leaders stretched a block and a half down the street. Many in attendance already knew each other, and the line took on the character of a street fair or a raucous reunion.
We passed through three security checks before we were finally allowed into the White House itself. There, guests were permitted to mingle freely, to wander from room to room, and to savor a delicious and kosher buffet, complete with the traditional Hanukkah latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts). A military band serenaded the guests with a selection of Jewish and classical music. On the walls, portraits of great Americans of every era witnessed the proceedings and testified to the great decisions which had been made in these halls.
At about 3:30, we heard that the president would appear and address us around 4 p.m., so people began to drift from the adjoining rooms to the area around the large central podium. Secret service guards emerged and took their places before the stage and around the room. A little after 4, an announcer proclaimed, "Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States and Mrs. Obama." The Obamas stood little more than 10 feet in front of us.
Like the others around me, I felt completely caught up in the majesty and wonder of this magical moment. And I sensed the presence of my beloved Grandma Dotty, who had died when I was in my twenties. My grandmother came to this country as a young girl, an immigrant from the Ukraine, who worked her way out of the Lower East Side, and moved with my grandfather to New Jersey to build a better life for their two daughters. Her memory hit me with such vividness as I imagined her excitement and disbelief if she could have only known that her grandson would be an invited guest to a White House party held by the president and the administration to honor an ancient Jewish holiday. She would have had no words, and her heart would have overflowed with emotion, as did mine.
My eyes filled with tears thinking about the many miracles that had to transpire to make this moment possible: a young nation imperfectly fighting its way toward a more perfect union, expanding circles of freedom, a deep commitment to religious liberty and diversity; an immigrant family that found its way to these shores, and a people who, in the course of three generations, established itself in the center of this nation's cultural, social, economic, and intellectual life; a president and first lady, descended from African slaves, who had risen to leadership on the wave of a vision of what this country could yet become, unwilling to accept the gap between reality and the vision of freedom and plenitude that is America at its best.
I was struggling to hold back tears when the three women in front of me turned and asked, "Rabbi, isn't there a blessing we are supposed to say at a time like this?"
It turns out, there is such a berakhah (blessing). According to the Talmud, one who sees a great king or political leader, recites, "You are Bountiful, Holy One our God, Sovereign of SpaceTime, who gives of Your power and glory to flesh and blood."
Rarely does the right situation present itself to recite these words, to observe this mitzvah.
This was such a moment.
On behalf of the people around me, and looking at the smiling face of the President and Mrs. Obama, with the blazing glow of the Hanukkah lights before them, I recited the ancient words of this hallowed Rabbinic blessing.
The wisdom of the Talmudic sages directs us to the miracles that attend the daily reality of our lives and the divinity which infuses our social structures. Surely God so manifests through our leaders, our democratic institutions, our coming together as a people in honor and with pride. Those seeking Jews around me -- not conventionally observant, perhaps, but soulful -- felt the inspiration to turn to a rabbi to elevate what might have seemed merely political. They yearned for a higher clarity, and for words to express their awe.
They felt the boundary-breaking holiness of this occasion, the way that emotions swelled beyond their normal limits, the exultation of a Jewish community celebrated and honored by the Nation, of Jewish diversity as black hat and secular, Conservative, Reform, Orthodox and secular stood side by side as a unified community for that moment, in that historical room.
And they sensed possibility. A possibility which needed to be voiced, affirmed, and renewed.
Surely the unity we all experienced is the upwelling of God's oneness. Surely the honor our President offered, in the very heart of the White House, is a miraculous rededication worthy of celebration.
"You are bountiful, Holy One our God, Sovereign of SpaceTime, who gives of Your greatness to flesh and blood."
Human greatness is a manifestation of the Divine, and it should elicit our awe, our gratitude, and our resolve to participate anew in the great unfinished task.