Of course it is coincidental that John McCain died during Elul, less than a week before Selichot and two weeks before Rosh Hashanah.
But the themes that played out through his life, and the way that he acknowledged them in the farewell he wrote soon before his death, and that a family spokesman read the day after he died, resonate powerfully at this time of year.
As he looked back on his life, which included terrors unimaginable to almost all of us as well as heights unattainable by most of us, he weighed the good he had done against the bad, the unequivocally moral against the self-serving, arguably immoral, and hoped that he came out on the right side of that equation.
In his words, “Thank you for the privilege of serving you and for the rewarding life that service in uniform and in public office has allowed me to lead. I have tried to serve our country honorably. I have made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them.”
Or as we ask In Unetaneh Tokef, may repentance, prayer and charity avert the stern decree.
Like biblical heroes, like all heroes for adults, John McCain had a complicated life and he was flawed, and in both universal and American ways.
In a biography studded with highly specific, even cinematic detail, because he was the son of a naval officer — in fact, the son and grandson of admirals — he went to about 20 schools before he was able to spend his last three years of high school in one place. That place, the Episcopal High School, a boarding school in Virginia, specialized in wealthy, upper-class, nicely behaved boys who understood their place, which just happened to be atop the world.
John McCain didn’t fit in. The New York Times reports that in high school he was called McNasty, and his classmates steered clear of him. Quoting a biography, the Times reports that his senior picture showed him “trench coat, collar up, cigarette dangling Bogey-style from his lips.”
How wonderful it would be to see that picture.
He famously graduated from Annapolis fifth from the bottom of his almost 900-man class. As a Navy pilot, he crashed twice. He was disdainful of rules and orders and any kind of respectability.
And then he was shot down in Vietnam, was captured, tortured mercilessly, held for five years, two of them in solitary confinement, refused the release that was offered to him for his pedigree because it was not his turn, did not pretend to a man-of-steel heroism that is not human and he did not have, because he was deeply human, and came out of that furnace molded into another man, someone who held onto himself but had been refined into himself.
Mr. McCain continued to be imperfect. Because he sometimes was a maverick and sometimes, despite his reputation, a straight party-line man, because he did not stick to any one straight line, there probably are few people who did not disagree with him on some issues. It was McCain whose thumbs-down kept Obamacare in place, and it was McCain who gave us Sarah Palin, and the politics of agrammatic, spittle-spewing illogical rage. He was a man of many facets.
He was both notorious for his temper and known for his goodness. Politico, among many other publications, posted stories about his quiet visits to the sick and wounded. There is a story, by the writer Michael Lewis, about how he visited Morris Udall, another Arizonan but a Democrat, when Udall, who once had been powerful but was no longer, who had been a mentor of McCain’s but by then was sick, old, powerless, and abandoned. Tammy Duckworth, the Democrat who represents Illinois in the Senate — and who is a former Army helicopter pilot and a double amputee — talked on NPR about how McCain visited her and other wounded Americans, long before she became a politician. (Also note that McCain did not tell those stories himself.)
There is no more classic example of fulfilling the mitzvot of visiting the sick and taking care of your elders and of the needy than those visits.
And one more thing — how you treat your opponents, once the battle is over.
McCain asked his rival, the victor in the 2000 Republican primary, President George W. Bush, and another rival, the victor in the 2008 election, President Barack Obama, to speak at his funeral. Compare that to President Trump, who vanquished his own rival, Hillary Clinton, but whose rallies generally still feature the roared demand to “Lock her up!”
John McCain’s final letter, and his request for speakers at his funeral, were acts of surpassing goodness, a desire for unity, that are both deeply Jewish and deeply American.