William Hamilton

The heart of the matter

The Gettysburg Address seeks nothing less than the rebirth of our Union.  Its words are meticulously chosen.  The word ‘nation’ for example, appears five times.  In the first paragraph which addresses the past, ‘our fathers brought forth a new nation’.  The second paragraph, addressing the present loss of life on the battlefield, makes three mentions of the word, including ‘that nation’, ‘any nation’, and ‘that nation’.  But it is in the last paragraph, which seeks to repurpose the future promise of the United States, when President Lincoln finally invokes ‘this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom’. 

Lincoln knew his Bible well.  When the Torah dates the Sinai revelation, it says “on this day” (ba-yom ha’zeh) rather than “on that day” (ba-yom ha-hu) to make a point about the here-ness of revealed Torah.  That day’ would have recalled a once-upon-a-time event, while ‘this day’ suggests a potential happening today, as on any and every day.   

Most of us don’t get up in the morning imagining, ‘Today something will happen – I’ll meet someone or do something – that will change my life.’  Yet any day, perhaps today, indeed this day urges us to be wakeful and watchful.  So too with statecraft.   We all have a share in repurposing citizenship to shape a healthier commonwealth – for America, for Israel, indeed for the entire House of Israel wherever we may be.

Consider how this week’s portion of Torah addresses the heart.  Until now in the Book of Exodus, it is the hardened heart of Pharaoh that grips our attention.  But as we now begin the final third of the Book, we are introduced to the opposite of a hard heart.  Not a soft heart, but a free, voluntary heart. “Everyone whose heart impels him (yi-dvenu libo) to give” (Ex. 25:2).  The arc of the Torah’s second book moves from coercive, harsh-heartedness toward freely expressed, generous-heartedness.  Institutions like the Tabernacle are sustained by heart-warming generosity.  A voluntary heart signals the birth of freedom.

210 years ago, President Lincoln was born on February 12th.  210 was the precise number of years that our ancestors were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.  Moving forward in the coming week, may we strive to exercise freedom’s responsibilities this day to remake this nation.  And may we model leadership of the people, by the people, and for the people, which flows from the heart of the matter.

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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