Longing for Lincoln

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These past several weeks have offered contrasting lessons in leadership. As elected officials and health experts have stood on the public stage, they have succeeded and failed in ways too numerous to count. Absence creates longing. So we yearn for those leaders or statesmen who earned reputations for radiating confidence, competence, compassion and integrity.

I have been thinking about a letter Abraham Lincoln wrote to Ulysses Grant after the Battle of Vicksburg on July 13, 1863:

My Dear General

I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgement for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do what you finally did — march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo-Pass expedition, and the like could succeed. When you got below, and took Port Gibson, Grand Gulf and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward, East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right and I was wrong.

Yours Very Truly,

A. Lincoln

In times such as these, when we face an enemy that is so utterly confounding and challenges that are so utterly unprecedented, it is axiomatic that our leaders will make mistakes. We all will. The question is what we do in the moments following our mistakes. Can we own them and own up to them or do we shift the blame and duck responsibility?

Since this pandemic began, we’ve been including Avinu Malkeinu in our daily tefillot. And we begin with a very simple declaration: Our Father, our King, we have transgressed before You. We confess that we were wrong; that we made mistakes. It’s when we’re in the habit of saying these words to Hashem that we can say them to other people. Admitting we were wrong is a great sign of strength. It signals not only humility, but a desire to do better next time around.

If our national leaders today don’t model such behavior, we’ll have to remember that there was a time in which they did. To long for Lincoln is to remember that politics and principles needn’t always be at odds. Who knows? Maybe this pandemic will inspire the nation’s next great leader – the leader who can admit to having been wrong.

About the Author
Yosie Levine is the Rabbi of The Jewish Center. He has taken a leadership role on the issue of day school affordability and serves as the chair of Manhattan Day School's Political Advocacy Committee. He is co-chair of the Manhattan Eruv and is active in numerous communal organizations including AIPAC and the Beth Din of America and serves on the Board of UJA-Federation of New York. He earned a BA in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia College and as a Wexner Graduate Fellow received rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He holds an MPA in Public Policy from NYU's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School and earned a doctoral degree in Early Modern Jewish History at Yeshiva University's Bernard Revel Graduate School. His doctoral dissertation is titled Hakham Zevi: An Intellectual Biography of an Early Modern Port Rabbi.
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