The recent presidential inauguration will be long remembered as a pivotal historic event. The eminent writer Richard Rodriguez was particularly struck by the farewell salute performed by former President George W. Bush as he was boarding the plane that took him home after relinquishing the office to his successor. Apparently every outgoing president gives this salute including Presidents Clinton, the elder George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and even the disgraced Richard Nixon as they left Washington for the last time as the chief executive of the nation.
The salute is a symbol of transition. We can be very proud as a nation of the peaceful transfer of power following a presidential election. It must, however, be difficult psychologically and spiritually for the incumbent to do. After all as President of the United States you are the single most powerful person on the face of the Earth. It is true that the burdens of the office are heavy and the responsibilities arduous; on the other hand, it is heady stuff to be surrounded by people twenty-four hours a day prepared to carry out your every wish. Given the tremendous effort that people exert to acquire the office, the pluses must surely outweigh the minuses. Even after experiencing what the post is like for one term, most occupants of the Oval Office try very hard to get reelected.
In truth, all of us periodically need to perform such a wave, at least symbolically; because nothing lasts forever. Our youth passes. Our children grow up. Life itself must be given up at some point. Like an outgoing president, we need the courage and grace to accept the transitions that life imposes upon us.
The obverse side of life’s ephemeral and transitory nature is that we ought to treasure the blessings that come our way to the greatest extent possible. Don’t waste your youth! Enjoy every available experience of your children’s growing up years. Cherish your friends and family while you have them! Appreciate the infinite value of your own life! Know, however, that no matter how much you may value them these treasures will not be yours forever. You may appreciate the sunshine on a lovely spring day; but the sun is still going to set. You may enjoy every milestone in your child’s life; but, God willing, he or she will still grow up and away. Indeed, there is something grotesque about trying to hold onto something beyond the appropriate time.
The late Rabbi Milton Steinberg, in a moving sermon delivered after his recovery from a serious heart attack, commented upon our simultaneous duty both to cherish life’s blessings and also to be prepared to give them up. To describe this phenomenon he used the metaphor “to hold with open arms.” In physical terms it is impossible to hold something with open arms. In order to clasp something, you have to clench your fists or close your arms. To release it, you have to open your hands and your arms. To both hold and open them at the same time is a logical and physical contradiction in terms. Yet, says Steinberg, that is precisely our duty as human beings. He believes we can do it when we realize that the obligation comes from God who made reality this way; and in God all paradoxes are harmonized.
Ecclesiastes was trying to get at this same truth when he wrote: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.” We need the knowledge and maturity to know when to do what. We celebrate Purim this month, observe it happily and zealously while you may; for the holiday like all else will soon be history.
Former President Bush in offering his farewell salute has set the proper example for us all. He gave up the greatest job in the world even as we all at some point have to give up our own most cherished treasures.