There was an American scholar of the Talmud named Chaim Zimmerman (my father’s teacher in high school in 1946), quite a witty character, who passed away in Israel a few years ago. I used to pump one of his students for clever quotes, and here is one that really stuck. He said, “You want proof that historians are liars? Simple. Buy a newspaper and you’ll see them already lying about yesterday. Multiply that by the time elapsed between past events and today; the result is a history book.”
A campaign is afoot in the media to downgrade President Bush even as he presides. When they hand off their clippings to the historians, an even more liberal bunch, his accomplishments will undergo further shrinkage even as his shortcomings become progressively magnified. Eventually, all history professors on the planet will be earnestly relaying to their acolytes that Bush himself made the Great Flood of New Orleans.
So it is hardly necessary for the likes of me to pile on about the pylons, or whatever those levees require for repair. Still, without hyperbole, it’s important to go on record to declare that the President has definitely become less in our eyes.
It brings to mind another story about a Talmud scholar, Jacob Safsel (I was friendly with two of his grandchildren), who wanted to help the American war effort in World War II. He conceived the idea that if he were to arrive at a true Biblical insight in each submarine, that would help to save the fleet when under attack. He applied to the Naval High Command for permission to pray aboard the submarines and so it was that as each one docked in New York Harbor, they would bring the Rabbi down for a benediction. But he would pause in thought after his prayer, meditating on some difficult passage until he thought of a solution.
Until the very last day of the war, Jacob Safsel was the first customer each morning at the local newsstand, to get the New York Times as soon as it was delivered. People were impressed by his loyalty to those submarines. “But also,” he would explain, “I need to know whether all my analyses were correct.”
The thinking behind that act is so moving and powerful. He believed that truth is more powerful than prayer as a guarantee of survival. Truth is that which ultimately endures. All the frippery, all the finery, all the pretense, all the posturing, eventually dissipates, and only what is true remains standing. By aligning ourselves with the truth, we can save lives now and in the future. And the truth is that President Bush blinked. He missed a great opportunity to be a savior.
We all understand how American bureaucracy works. The ball was dropped many times as it went up the ladder. Local government goofed before, during, and after the hurricane and the flood. So did state government. Nor were all federal agencies on their toes. And usually those people handle things while the President’s role is mostly symbolic and inspirational. That model worked well enough last year for Florida’s tragic hurricanes, but this time the scale was that much bigger and a great American city was in danger of extinction, while a lot of individual citizens were trapped, awaiting rescue.
In the Clinton days they said, “It does not rise to the level of impeachment, only of censure.” Today we say: this does not rise to the level of blame, only of disappointment. In a moment that called for greatness — the sort of leadership shown by Truman in the Berlin Airlift — we got business-as-slightly-more-than-usual.
One last story about a third Talmud scholar, the late Rabbi Eliezer Silver, Chief Rabbi of Cincinnati from the 1930s through the 1960s. He was much more famous than the other two; the city of Cincinnati made a Memorial Day in his honor. In the ’50s, when Peron’s government in Argentina was tottering, Silver was reading the news with a penetrating eye. One day he read an item that convinced him that Peron would fall. He called his young assistant, Jacob Lustig (still residing in Cincinnati), to take him to the Western Union office. There, he telegrammed to Rabbi Bloom, Chief Rabbi of Argentina, the following text designed to confound government censors: “And the way the Ark traveled was that Moses said, ‘Arise…’ (Numbers 10:35)”
Late that night, the phone rang in Silver’s house. It was Rabbi Bloom calling from the post office in Buenos Aires (the only way to make international calls at that time), acknowledging that he received the telegram and asking when he should leave. “Why are you still there?” Silver shouted. “Leave immediately in the middle of the night.” The Blooms grabbed a few possessions and paid a fisherman to row them across to Uruguay. By the next morning, the military had deposed Peron and arrested all major religious leaders as collaborators.
When people need saving, the great leaders leap forward, trampling the existing hierarchies if necessary, and they say one word, the one word we did not hear last week until Friday. It came three days too slow. That word is: NOW.
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