The ‘tikkun olam’ president

Barack Obama doesn’t talk about Jewish values because they make for good speeches. He does it because he believes in them.

Barack Obama 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Barack Obama 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Kvetching about what your kids wear to a bar or bat mitzvah is something you expect to hear from the other moms and dads at Hebrew School – but probably not from a president of the United States. But there was President Obama this month, a dad of two young daughters, empathizing with Jewish parents everywhere, at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial Convention.
It’s refreshing how genuinely and naturally our president relates to the Jewish community. He mentions by name responsibilities like tikkun olam, the Jewish tradition of working to repair the world, and then talks from the heart about his belief in the same. He discusses the concept of “hineini” – “Here I am” – not only because he thinks giving an unexpected d’var Torah makes for a good speech, but because he subscribes to the values those prophetic words represent.
Those Hebrew words, spoken individually in the Torah by Abraham and Moses, and as we read in synagogue the week of the president’s speech, also by Joseph, express our collective obligation to leave the world a better place and to stand up for all that lies ahead. The president reminded us that everyone who wants the best for their children and their neighbors’ children share this obligation to repair the world. Tikkun Olam is simply a commitment Americans share.
President Obama also proves that these values cannot be contained to the words alone – whether they are spoken in Hebrew, English or in any other tongue. He knows they must go beyond words; that they must inspire deeds. For this president, they do.
Don’t believe me? Look at what he’s done this year, when the president showed more than ever that he stands with Israel. As always, he didn’t make empty promises or use pandering rhetoric; he backed up his words with action.
As fire scorched Israel’s Carmel mountain range last winter and threatened Haifa, Obama didn’t think twice before sending all but four of America’s firefighting planes to help Israel quench the flames. When families in Sderot lived in bomb shelters, the president made sure Israel got unprecedented security funding to build the Iron Dome system that now intercepts rockets from Gaza. Unlike those jockeying to oppose him in November, President Obama will never, ever suggest zeroing- out the foreign aid budget.
On the contrary, Israel will receive more US aid this year than ever before.
And when the world turned away from Israel this September, President Obama stood before the United Nations and strongly declared “hineini.” In so many words, he told the world: I am here, the United States is here, and I stand with Israel. Then President Obama backed up those words with what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a “badge of honor,” blocking Palestinian efforts to circumvent direct negotiation with Israel and pursue statehood unilaterally.
That’s nothing new coming from a president whose first UN Security Council veto blocked a resolution condemning Israel and supporting her right of self-defense. What’s more, his leadership toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has Israel’s core interests at heart – peaceful and secure coexistence, rather than war, terror and strife.
President Obama has pursued tikkun olam in countless ways. He’s fighting to restore fairness for families, making sure we all play by the same rules, that hard work pays off and that responsibility is rewarded. He’s taking unprecedented steps toward equality for women, gays and lesbians, and for long-marginalized groups. And he’s isolating Iran and taking terrorists off the field – including more than half of al-Qaida’s top leadership. General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden isn’t.
The list goes on. Doubling fuelefficiency standards, as the president did, not only saves us money at the pump, but it also to makes sure we live in a world with cleaner air to breathe, and in a country less dependent on oil from foreign countries who aren’t friends of America and certainly not of Israel.
A little while ago, many young Americans couldn’t get health insurance. Maybe their job didn’t provide it or they couldn’t afford it. Insurance companies often dropped young adults after they turned 18 or graduated from college. President Obama reformed health care, letting young Americans stay on their parents’ plans until they turn 26. In just one year’s time, more than 2.5 million young Americans no longer have to worry about being bankrupted by medical bills. That’s some serious change for our next generation. That’s tikkun olam in deeds, not just words.
In supporting Israel and making sure our children inherit a better world, President Obama clearly doesn’t just talk about values like fixing the world or standing up for what’s right. He believes in them and he lives them. I know he always will.
The writer is senior rabbi of Congregation Etz Chaim in Lombard (Chicago), Illinois and a co-founder of Rabbis for Obama.