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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.

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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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  • Jeffrey Justin

    President Lincoln shares with President Obama the use of executive orders , For President Obama it was the order to send troops back into Iraq and Afganistan also advisors and equipment to help Fight Isis. For President Lincoln ,it was the greatist of his achievments ,the executive order for “The Emancipation Proclamation”

  • Yoel Nitzarim

    President Obama aside, I wish to look for a moment at Prime Minister Netanyahu. For all his great intellect, sagacity, political savvy and acumen, oratory brilliance, and personality command, Mr. Netanyahu has not shown enough backbone to lead this beleaguered nation through these very turbulent times, especially regarding Iran and our conflict with Islamic jihad in Israel. His ratings are rather low at a time when his leadership is most needed and his command most desired. It is not enough to state that the status quo will be maintained, must be maintained: it is high time that Israel assert her raison d’être to be a guiding, shining light unto the nations. The fog and night of this present moment in history when Iran will be given a free light to attain a nuclear capability with an America and other so-called allies acquiescence and the escalation of Hamas-Fatah-Islamic Jihad-the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hatred physically, emotionally, and psychologically battering our society, we must demand sound, consistent, resolute leadership with backbone, determination, and resolve. The latter attributes must comprise the steadfastness of leadership which leads us in the person of our prime minister to take hold and guide us through all of this subterfuge and existential threat facing us today, in the near future, and not too long down the road. Mr. Netanyahu, our present and long-standing leader must conjure up the strength to lead us with the combined hope and faith of our people who have survived and continue to survive unthinkable hatred, suffering, and isolation. And yet, Mr. Netanyahu has the wherewithal to persevere if he so desires, if he so extends himself, if he remembers–and I know that he does–that the will of this people of Israel in Tzahal and the will of the one G-d stand firmly at his side as well as behind him.

  • Al Dattolo

    DR. ABRAHAM LINCOLN-THE GREATEST AMERICAN AND PRESIDENT WHO EVER LIVED. THAT SUMS IT ALL UP!

  • Efram

    Obama is all that Lincoln was, in the reverse.

  • Efram

    Obama was all that Lincoln was, except in the inverse.

  • Ivan Gur-Arie

    I agree with Rabbi Genack. Obama would do well to study the lives and deeds of the great leaders of history. Only by knowing history will you know the road ahead.

  • Arthurf Fliegenhaeimer

    Obama’s anti -Israel policies give the green light to the European dhimmies who are anti -Semitic and anti-Israel.Don’t forget he is a backer of the Muslim brotherhood.& the “Arab Spring”.He should become the caliph of the Isis or Isil.

  • Arthurf Fliegenhaeimer

    Obama is no Lincoln,he’s more like Jimmy Carter with A golden tongue.It is sad to see the passing of an era when there was bipartisan support for Israel.except for Bob Menendez of NJ the democrats are Obama zombies , pushing O’s piece plan ,where Israel keeps giving up a piece of land , but there are always more demands.Obama’s motto should be the old Groucho Marx line,”Who you gonna believe , me or your own eyes?”

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