Arnold E. Resnicoff
Retired U.S. Navy Chaplain

The Lord God Almighty and the President of the United States

I rarely post anything linked to politics, after a lifetime in the military where the tradition was to try to be patriotic but non-partisan. That vision led many of my friends in the military, including some generals and admirals, to go so far as to refrain from voting at all – but for most of us, it was a philosophy followed as guidance related to public words and acts, not those in private. I always voted, but I let that vote remain a secret ballot.

Therefore, while political leaders debate the question as to whether President Biden should stay in the race or withdraw, I’ll keep my opinion to myself — and comment instead on the president’s remark that if The Lord God Almighty would come down to tell him to drop out, that would be the advice he would follow.

That comment reminded me of an old story that was included in a wonderful episode of The West Wing, one of my all-time favorite series.

President Josiah Bartlett is facing a difficult decision, and after conversations with a number of religious leaders — and even a call put in to the Pope — he has a conversation with his parish priest, played by the always-remarkable Karl Malden.

Malden’s character shares an old parable about a religious man who hears on the radio that a flood might come. However, he assures himself that he will be all right, because (he tells himself) he is religious, “he prays,” and he has faith that God will protect him.

But the waters rise, and he finds himself on the roof of his house, hanging on for dear life.

A neighbor in a rowboat comes by, to offer him a ride — but the man again says that he will be all right, because he has faith, and God will provide.

Finally, a police helicopter comes by to rescue him — but once again, he waves off the rescue, secure in his faith that God will protect him.

The story ends with the man in Heaven, at the “pearly gates” (the expression used by the priest), where he demands an audience with God.

He challenges God, declaring that he was religious, he had faith, but he perished in the flood. Why didn’t you protect me?

God looks at him, according to the story, and says “I sent you a radio warning, a rowboat, and a helicopter. What more did you want me to do?”

According to Biblical stories, early humans, from the time of the Garden of Eden, were often in direct conversation with the Almighty.

Later, during the time of Biblical prophets, the Jewish belief was that these prophets were in direct contact with God — often chosen to speak God’s word and reveal God’s will specifically to challenge the words of kings, during a time when other peoples often believed that the word of the ruler was itself the word of God.

When both the age of Jewish prophets and the age of Jewish kings came to an end, Jews were taught to be wary of direct proclamations from above. A famous Talmudic story about “the oven of Akhnai” focused on a debate among rabbis about a matter of Jewish law, where not even physical miracles or new “words from above” should determine the course of action when it came to decisions on earth. Instead, our decisions should be driven by truths on earth, lessons learned combined with revelation and teachings passed down throughout the ages: Torah from Sinai, to use a good Jewish phrase.

One of my favorite stories is a mystical answer to the question of what happens during the nine months babies are forming in their mothers’ wombs. According to the story, an angel is with them, teaching them Torah. Then, at the time of birth, the angel touches the baby’s face right under the nose — that’s where, according to this tradition, the philtrum, the vertical groove between the nose and our lips, comes from — and all of our knowledge of Torah vanishes.

However, if that is the case, then why be taught Torah at all? The answer is that it gives us a head start on life, because it is easier to recognize and relearn a truth than to learn it for the first time — like remembering a song lyric that we had once known, then forgotten. Deep in our heart, the right path, the right decision, can be a memory, an echo, a reminder of God’s word, or even God’s word itself, if we listen carefully enough.

The Lord God Almighty may not “come down” to address us, regardless of whether we’re commoner or king, citizen or president, but it’s possible the message is there for us to hear — the still small voice that might be strengthened by the offer of a neighbor’s rowboat.

I will not presume to know what that message might be for President Biden. I do pray that he is searching for it — and listening very, very carefully for it –in ways other than a direct visit from Almighty God.

About the Author
Rabbi Resnicoff is a retired U.S. Navy Chaplain, former National Director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, Special Assistant to the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force for Values and Vision (with the military equivalent rank of Brigadier General), and Command Chaplain for the United States European Command -- at that time, the "top chaplain" for all U.S. forces in 83 countries, spanning 13 million square miles. His Naval career began in the rivers of Vietnam followed by Naval Intelligence in Europe before rabbinical school and ordination. Part of a small group of Vietnam veterans that worked to create the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, he delivered the closing prayer at its dedication, and personally convinced the US military to participate in the U.S. Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust. He was the first chaplain to teach at a U.S. military war college: "Faith and Force: Religion, War, and Peace," Naval War College, in Newport, RI, where he was also a frequent guest speaker at the annual “Ethics and Military Leadership” conference he helped create. His numerous military awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal, and besides ordination and an honorary doctorate, his academic degrees include a masters in International Relations, and another in Strategic Studies and National Security Affairs. He delivered more prayers in congress than any other rabbi, and is the only rabbi Guest of Honor at the historic USMC Marine Barracks parade. On Oct 23, 1983, he was present in Beirut, Lebanon during the 1983 terrorist attack that took the lives of 241 American military personnel. His report of the attack and its aftermath, written at the request of the White House, was read as a keynote speech by President Ronald Reagan. Click HERE for text. Click HERE for video. Click HERE for more background information.Click HERE for Resnicoff website.
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