William Hamilton

JFK at 100: Lessons for a new century

“I first saw Palestine in 1939” John F. Kennedy described in the summer of 1960. “There the neglect and ruin left by centuries of Ottoman misrule were slowly being transformed by miracles of labor and sacrifice. I returned in 1951 to see the grandeur of Israel. In 3 years this new state had opened its doors to 600,000 immigrants and refugees. Even while fighting for its own survival, Israel had given new hope to the persecuted and new dignity to the pattern of Jewish life.” 

The Prophet Hosea in this week’s Haftorah anticipated Kennedy’s observations as a transformation from “a valley of desolation to a gateway of hope (petach tikvah)” (Hos. 2:17).

President Kennedy’s reflections on his visits to the Holy Land feel fitting this weekend as we observe the 100th anniversary of his birth on May 29, 1917. Just up the Street from Kehillath Israel JFK came into this world.  When his assassination ruthlessly took him from this world, our Congregation’s esteemed leaders led an historic memorial for our nation’s 35th President. 

Of course President Kennedy is best known for his inspiring call to duty.  He became a change-agent, forging a promising spirit of possibility and responsibility.  One reason why he was so successful at awakening and empowering a new generation was due to his esteem for the brilliance of our Nation’s founding figures.  He once reflected, “I run into the results of their work every day.” 

Personalizing a rapport with fore-bearers is also in evidence in this week’s portions of Torah and Haftorah. Bonds are personalized between God and our People.  Three times the Hebrew word meaning “to me” (Li) appears regarding Levites (Num. 3:12, 41, 45) and three times it recurs in a single verse regarding Firstborns (Num. 3:13). Hosea’s faithful betrothal poetically culminates by three times employing the same word (Li) (Hos. 2:21-22).

What can such poetic personalization achieve? President Kennedy famously said of Politicians that they need an acquaintance with poetry not merely with prose.  He believed that sound judgement required familiarity with classics and with intellectual curiosity.  Such familiarity helps “to prevent us from becoming imprisoned by our own slogans.”

1917 was a defining year.  It was the year of the Balfour Declaration, the birth of JFK, and also the birth of Brookline Massachusetts’ Jewish community with the founding of Kehillath Israel.  May lessons for 2017 of personalizing our rapport with our fore-bearers and the ideas that furnished their inner lives, help keep us from becoming imprisoned by our own slogans.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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