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A lesson from the queen: Even divided countries can be united

Queen Elizabeth II was an exemplar of much I hold dear: unflinching devotion to duty, commitment to her people, personal dignity, tradition, and belief in God
Queen Elizabeth II, at a Golden Jubilee dinner with then-British prime minister Tony Blair and former prime ministers, (from left to right) Margaret Thatcher (left of Blair), Edward Heath, James Callaghan, and John Major, on February 6, 2022. (UK government, via Wikipedia)
Queen Elizabeth II, at a Golden Jubilee dinner with then-British prime minister Tony Blair and former prime ministers, (from left to right) Margaret Thatcher (left of Blair), Edward Heath, James Callaghan, and John Major, on February 6, 2022. (UK government, via Wikipedia)

I want to share some very personal thoughts on the passing of Queen Elizabeth II on Thursday in Scotland.

I know that many good American citizens brought up with a very healthy love of democracy and living in a republic have a hard time understanding why British people, including me, remained so devoted to the idea of monarchy, and to affection and loyalty to the queen in particular.

I want to try and express some of my own thoughts on this very sad occasion, as a way of perhaps helping people understand who — and what — has passed.

Queen Elizabeth II represented very many of the things that I, as an Orthodox Jew, admire and love. She stood, first and foremost for duty, unflinching devotion to the task that she swore, in her mid-20s, to carry out for the rest of her life. She never retired or contemplated abdication, because she had taken an oath, in front of G-d, to serve Him and the people for the rest of her life. And until Thursday, she did exactly that. Only two days before, she had overseen the smooth transition of power in the appointment of the new prime minister.

It must be almost impossible to be a monarch in today’s day and age. To stand above politics, to be a figurehead that unites the country, to somehow convey a love for people and for The People — and for their welfare and interests — and at the same time be completely non-political. To be, as she was, “above politics.” And yet, no one for a second doubted that was what she stood for.

And in doing so, she taught something that so desperately needs to be remembered — that even divided countries can be united. That the vast majority of people have more in common than what divides them. That we are not defined by the ugliness of contemporary politics. The queen stood for the idea that the vast majority of us share a set of values and decency and belief in kindness and duty that transcend all the politics and divisions of our time.

“She never put a foot wrong” — That is the way the queen was described all through my years of growing up. She never allowed herself to be dragged into any sort of scandal or hint of improper behavior. In the 70 years that she reigned, despite the massive changes that have affected almost every aspect of life, including in our values and social norms, she was never seen to act with anything other than the dignity of her office. Whatever her family, sadly, may have got up to, her life was one of extraordinary morality and personal dignity.

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, tradition and faith. Monarchy is not something that anyone today would invent or institute. It exists only because it is ancient. But tradition is enormously important. The monarchy, certainly with the queen on the throne, was a force for tremendous good. And the queen spent her life determined to uphold tradition — not because it was “old,” but because it worked. That however “ridiculous” the idea, or some of the rituals and ceremonies associated with it seemed, at the end of the day, what it stood for — an indispensable link with the past, a sense of continuity, demonstrating that one can indeed be devoted to tradition, and still move with the times — all of those values, perfected by the queen during her reign, are as vital now as they ever were. As a traditional Jew, I believe that without “tradition,” people are not necessarily “liberated” — they are more often than not lost, rudderless, and unsure of their place in the world.

And of course related was perhaps the most important thing about the queen. She believed in G-d. She believed she had been given a role to carry out, and would one day be asked to render an account for how she had performed it. And she believed, in good times and bad, that G-d would guide her and protect her. She prayed, she read the Bible, and she tried to act according to the Will of God. The same is true of the rest of us who believe in G-d too.

Many of us born in the UK — and many not — are surprised at the depth of our feelings upon her passing. Queen Elizabeth reigned from before I was born. Her reign lasted more than a quarter of the entire history of the United States of America. She was a constant, a fixed point. Prime ministers come and go. The decades change. The queen was always there. Of course we knew this day would come. But we also secretly wondered if it ever would.

Queen Elizabeth II was a force for much good in this world. Her passing has saddened so many of us. She lived a long life of extraordinary devotion to G-d and to her people. May she rest in peace.

About the Author
Born in Glasgow, Scotland. Holds a BA in Economics and an MBA. Former Rabbi of Cambridge University and Barnet Synagogue in London. Appointed Senior Rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan in 2005.
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