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November 21, 2014 11:44 am

A Jewish Perspective on Obama, Lincoln, and Gettysburg

avatar by Menachem Genack

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President Obama speaking on the phone with the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, September 2013. Photo: The White House

In light of President Obama’s recent drubbing in the midterm elections, the November 19th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address is a good time to see what Abraham Lincoln – who suffered his own (milder) setback in the 1862 mid-term elections -can teach us about leadership.

“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.”

The brief address that Lincoln delivered in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863, which he predicted would soon be forgotten, became the most famous speech in American history. As we ponder the message of the Gettysburg Address, we would do well also to plumb the profound personality of its author, for we are in a crisis of leadership and the health of our nation depends as much on the character of its leaders as on the might of its military.

The Biblical description of leadership qualities is instructive. Far from emphasizing the regal, the magisterial, and the valiant, the Bible highlights the humble. Moses, the leader par excellence who shepherded the embattled Children of Israel through 40 years in the desert, who guided a motley group of refugee slaves through trials and tribulations and successfully forged them into a nation, is described in Numbers (12:3) simply, “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.”  In Deuteronomy (17:20), the personality trait that is required for kings of Israel is, “That his heart be not lifted up above his brethren.”

Lincoln professed non-allegiance to any organized religion but was perhaps animated by religious spirit more than any other President. In his self-effacing view of his own worth, he was certainly the embodiment of the Bible’s ideal leader. Lincoln’s assertion that the words of the Gettysburg Address would soon be forgotten was not a nod to false modesty, but an expression of his deep-seated humility. What marked Lincoln as possibly our greatest President, aside from his political genius, eloquence, and steadfast adherence to principle, was his abiding sense of humility and ability to admit his mistakes.

While he was well aware of his extraordinary capacities, Lincoln had a sense of perspective about his role in history. It was not a sense of misplaced modesty that led him to say that it was God, not he, who was controlling events. As he expressed it in his Second Inaugural, “The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Lincoln’s humility expressed itself in his readiness to admit mistakes. In his letter of July 1863 congratulating Grant on the capture of Vicksburg, Lincoln wrote, “I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right and I was wrong.”

On the one hand, Lincoln was meek and humble. On the other, he was the most assertive President in American history. This seeming inconsistency is comprehensible only in view of the religious dimension in Lincoln’s perception of his role in history.

Lincoln preserved the union with a combination of rare leadership skill and iron will, persevering long after others felt the cause was lost. And yet, an uninflated view of his own importance, and an ability to admit mistakes were as much a part of his personality as his unwavering determination and sense of purpose. Lincoln’s recognition of the human’s inability to fathom God’s inscrutable will, far from blunting his leadership, gave him a sense of perspective about his own role, which only enhanced his leadership.

President Obama, a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln, would do well to look to Lincoln’s character for a lesson in effective Presidential leadership. The Gettysburg Address is not only a towering statement of our Nation’s formative principles, but also an enduring  lesson in the qualities of character needed in our leaders if those principles are to be preserved.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, author of “Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons on Faith and Leadership”, is Chief Executive Officer of the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Division and rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Englewood, New Jersey.

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