At this Hanukkah season of the year our minds turn to events that happened thousands of years ago when a small band of Judeans risked all in order to preserve their freedom. They were led by Judah Maccabee, a brave and fearless leader, who inspired his countrymen to manifest the highest standards of idealism and valor. Unfortunately, he was killed in battle before his goals were achieved. In many ways, Judah Maccabee reminds me of the late President John F. Kennedy, who also lost his life in the midst of his presidential battles on behalf of the people of the United States.
It is now 44 years since that fateful November 22nd when Lee Harvey Oswald deprived us of a leader whose charisma, style, humanity and courage caught the imagination of this country in a way that very few, both before his time and after it, have been able to do. No amount of historical revisionism has succeeded in diminishing his hold on public affection. Not that Kennedy was perfect. He stressed civil rights insufficiently, at least in the beginning. He permitted himself to be misled by the inept authors of the Bay of Pigs. He ignored the possibilities of reconciliation with China and Cuba. But all people err. The greatness of Kennedy lay in his capacity to acknowledge mistakes and change course. This, indeed, is the most exalted of all virtues in the eyes of Jewish tradition. The Talmud tells us that not even the noblest saint can reach the level of a man who sincerely repents and endeavors to do better.
In his moments of greatness, he ranks with the most eminent leaders of human history. Surely the finest of these occurred in October 1962 when he set up a naval blockade that forced Nikita Khrushchev to remove the missiles that the Soviets had sneaked into Cuba. That dramatic showdown brought the world to the brink of thermonuclear war; however, Kennedy demonstrated that the possession of military strength and a willingness to use it if necessary are indispensable to the preservation of peace. It is a position with which Judah Maccabee would heartily have agreed and one which harmonizes with the Talmudic dictum: "If anyone comes to kill you, then you may kill him first."
With all of Kennedy’s tenacity and fighting spirit if he felt he was in the right, there was nothing jingoistic or aggressive in his demeanor or policies. What he wanted, above all, was peace; and for that reason he would surely have regarded as his greatest triumph the negotiation of a limited nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. In any event, détente is a product of power, not the renunciation of military potency. That has surely been the credo of the Jewish people for whom shalom is the supreme value; yet they have not hesitated to fight when necessary from the days of Judah Maccabee down to the era of David ben Gurion and Ariel Sharon.
Kennedy’s empathy with Jewish thinking is also evident in his pragmatism. The Sages say that a man must have his feet on the ground but his head in the heavens. It was their way of indicating the importance of combining vision with practicality. This was without a doubt one of Kennedy’s greatest strengths. He was an "idealist without illusions."
At the time of his death there were many other things that President Kennedy wanted to do both domestically and internationally. Unfortunately, he never got the chance. Yet, the importance of what he did accomplish is suggested by a memorable passage from his inaugural address: "All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin." If Kennedy had known the Talmud better, he might have said: Lo alecha ha’m’lacha, Ligmor, v’ee atto pattur haymenah, "Yours is not to finish the job, but neither are you exempt from it."