When he turned 95, George Bush wrote his first and final tweet:
I am truly touched and overwhelmed by all the messages I have received today. And although I have seen them all, I can no longer answer them all. My 94 year old hands would rebel. Just know I appreciated hearing from you.
As many of you know, for years I have said the three most important things in my life are faith, family, and friends. My faith has never been stronger. I am blessed to be with the world’s most loving family. And thanks to you, I feel the love of the best friends a man ever had.
My heart is full on the first day of my 95th year.”
His words not only reflect the thoughtful, considerate man he was, but also embody a philosophy of life and a resonant contemporary message.
George Bush was a man of a different age, one not free of pain and conflict, but one marked by dignity and respect. This 41st President of the USA was no stranger to life’s harshness, although he was born into wealth and privilege.
He was an aviator in World War 2, his plane shot down in the Pacific and he bailed out by parachute. He spent 4 hours in an inflated raft, several of his compatriots were captured and brutally executed. This experience shaped Bush profoundly, leading him to ask “Why had I been spared and what did God have for me?”
Faith was fundamental to the life of this genteel gentleman. He used it to guide him through his own suffering, the death of his three year old daughter to leukaemia, the heartbreak of others. He used it as impetus to achieve a sense of appreciation for the life he felt was a gift.
Family was intrinsic to the life of this civil and thoughtful man: he was married to Barbara for over70 years; he remained connected to his children as was evident in the poignant eulogy of his son George:
“He made our lives and the lives of nations freer, better, warmer and nobler. That was his mission, that was his heartbeat, and if we listen closely enough we can hear that heartbeat even now. For it’s the heartbeat of a lion, a lion who not only led us but loved us.”
Friends were critical to this easy-going and principled man. This is no more evident than in the letters he wrote to many of them and the tributes he received from them. Bush however extended the hand of friendship even to his political opponents and critics. This makes him someone worth paying attention to in our age of divisiveness, disrespect and the polarisation of politics.
In his memoir, Bush wrote that when he was president, Washington Post reporter Ann Devroy “gave me heartburn many mornings when I opened the Post.”
But in 1996, when Bush learned that Devroy had cancer, he set aside the bitterness and wrote to her, “I want you to win this battle.”
“I want that same toughness that angered me and frustrated me to a fare-thee-well at times to see you through your fight,” he told her.
Reading the tributes to Bush while reading this week’s Parasha, reminded me how the Torah portrays the life of its leaders. Here is Joseph, a man who knew too well the course of suffering: despised and abandoned by his brothers, sold into slavery thrown into prison on trumped-up accusations. Here is Joseph who in the darkness of the dungeon discovers his talent, his strength and his faith. Here is Joseph who rises to the very pinnacle of power and privilege. Here is Joseph who reflects deeply, perhaps more deeply than any of our other Biblical heroes, on the means of family and friendship. He is befriended by Potiphar, by the prison guards and the inmates. Theirs’, however, is a shallow and untrustworthy kinship. Joseph may have become beloved by the people of Egypt who would greet him with acclaim as he moved through the streets, but he doesn’t seem to have had any close friendships.
His story is however a tale about the challenges of family. Navigating the tides and tribulations of family life was for Joseph more treacherous than the unstable waters of the Nile. He suffers the early loss of his mother, the long separation from his loving father, the envy and enmity of his brothers. Even when reunited with his brothers, the rivers of mistrust run deep.
Joseph gets us to think about the meaning of family, the attachment to our parents; the pain of separating from them; the price of sibling rivalry; the joy and difficulties of having children.
The Torah, especially in Bereshit (Genesis), dissects the family with analytical acuity but ultimately affirms that it is one of the foundations of our faith and the pillars of our identity.
George Bush reminds us that in our new and sharp information age we have lost some of the old and tender virtues of the past era. In 1988 he called for a “kinder, gentler nation” The Torah has always encouraged us to be kinder, better people, to deepen faith, to strengthen family and to forge friendships.
I can imagine that Joseph would have approved of the final letter George Bush wrote in the Oval Office to his successor Bill Clinton whom he developed an unlikely but enduring friendship with:
“There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.
You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.”
Years later, Clinton did the same for his own successor, George W. Bush. Clinton wrote in his memoir that he “wanted to be gracious and encouraging, as George Bush had been to me.”
Joseph was not as fortunate to have a gracious successor but he did leave a lasting legacy for his family and descendants.
Shabbat Shalom, Chag Same’ach