It was an engraved invitation from the White House for Roselle and I to attend the 46th National Prayer Breakfast with President Bill Clinton held yearly on the first Thursday of February since 1953. Originally called the Presidential Prayer Breakfast it was organized for Christian members of Congress by a conservative Christian organization known as “The Family”.
Over the years the Breakfast was supposed to be transformed into an interfaith gathering of world leaders and the political elite who would affirm commonly held religious values and put aside political differences.
Of course Clinton made no mention of accusations that he had an affair with a former White House intern. Rather, in his remarks, he asked us to consider the words of King Solomon: “I am only a little child and I do not know how to carry out my duties …so give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong…” This was as close or as far as he came to addressing the elephant in the room.
Then Clinton received a kind of an affirmation from Billy Graham. He suggested that “when we point a finger at the President, let’s point another finger at ourselves for our sins” with the implication that all Americans are equally guilty of sin, and should not judge one another harshly.
I thought how different was the prophet Nathan’s direct confrontation of King David’s sin in lusting after Bathsheba when he said to David, “Why did you despise the word of God by doing what is evil in his eyes”?
I thought also of how different were Clinton’s parsed words “it depends on the meaning of what “is”-is.” from the forthright confession of David,the anointed king over Israel, who said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Divine King.”
When we broke up into groups and I found myself in a room where the speaker was a member of the French parliament. She related a dramatic story of her transformation from an atheist to a believing Christian when a member of her family seemed to be miraculously cured.
After launching into a fierce denunciation of American guns and violence and the barbarity of executions in Texas she turned to a subject I wasn’t expecting. Jacques Chirac, the President of France, had just apologized for French complicity in a roundup of Jews during the 2nd World War.As depicted in the movie “Sarah’s Key”, French police and civil servants, not the Germans, carried out a raid aimed at reducing the number of Jews in occupied France.13,000 souls were confined in the midst of winter in squalid conditions in a bicycle stadium, the Velodrome, and then shipped off to Auschwitz, where they perished.
Now this member of the French Parliament paused and fixed her gaze directly on me. I was seated in the back and wearing a yarlmeka . “Rabbi”, she asked, “Do you forgive us”? What was I to say at that moment?
In the famous moral drama, “The Sunflower”, the author, a young Jew named Simon facing death in Auschwitz, is brought before a fatally wounded S.S. soldier who requests forgiveness for participating in atrocities against the Jewish people.
Viewing Simon as a representative of the Jewish people he begs for a response. In vain, he desperately awaits the comforting words that might offer him a peaceful death. Young Simon, torn and confused, himself still captive in a living hell, holds his silence.
There, in the Hilton, I felt that there are some sins so hideous as to be beyond the realm of human forgiveness. I could not bring myself as a representative of my people to respond to the speaker affirmatively or to even nod my head, and, after a painful pause, she averted her glance and I breathed a sigh of relief.
There was yet a memorable meeting awaiting me and it was not at the Hilton. Our host Congressman Ben Gilman found me and he said, “Rabbi, come with me. As important as this event at the Hilton is I want you to meet a truly great man.”
Soon we were in a Congressional meeting room along with Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi and we were introduced to the famous Chinese human rights activist and political dissident, Wei Jingsheng, who was released from a harsh Chinese prison after 18 years. Wei Jingsheng was celebrated for his human right efforts and given the title of “Father of Chinese Democracy” and the “Nelson Mandela of China.”
I admired Wei for speaking bluntly and telling us that the United States should be at least as firm in its position on human rights in China as the Chinese government was.
In a speech at Amnesty International Wei Jingsheng recalled a discussion with his Chinese prison guard in which he discovered his purpose in life: “I suddenly realized that my determination to help others was the great cause which had been helping me maintain my optimism and strength. Once I realized this I became aware that I could not shake off my life-long responsibility to others.”
As Roselle and I drove back to our 1750 Farmhose near Washington’s headquarters in Newburgh on a snowy February day I thought of President Clinton and Billy Graham and Madame Rousseau and Wei Jingsheng.
I would soon conduct the Passover Seder at my Temple, commemorating our freedom from slavery. I would tell my congegation only of one person I met in Washington. It was not Bill Clinton or the others dignitaries at the Hilton Hotel. It was Wei Jingsheng who found his purpose in life. It was to help others and to free those who are imprisoned of body and spirit. To me he represented the heart of my calling as a Rabbi.
May it be everyone’s calling.