I’ve been feeling increasingly disgusted by our current morally bankrupt and corrupt White House occupant and his Republican sycophants and supporters and have thought to stop reading and watching the news so as to purge the toxicity as much as I can from my life. Yet, my anxiety about this election remains and I can’t stay away from the news for long. That said, I’ve been turning to reading history to offer me perspective.
In my library (inherited from my father) is a volume of collected tributes about Abraham Lincoln written and delivered immediately after his assassination beginning on April 19, 1865 and continuing until 1927. The book is called Abraham Lincoln – The Tribute of the Synagogue edited by Emanuel Hertz (New York: Bloch Publishing, 1927). Hertz (1870-1940) was a lawyer and historian.
Hertz collected and published sixty-six items in this volume, mostly tributes by rabbis but also including a moving poem by Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) whose verse (“Give me your tired your poor…”) graces the Statue of Liberty. Lazarus chose for her poem’s title the date of John Wilkes Booth’s capture and death, inadvertently giving it a day too late – April 27, Eighteen-Sixty-Five.
What follows here is a portion of a tribute delivered at the Lodge Street Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio on April 19, 1865 by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900), a Czech immigrant to the United States in 1846. At Rabbi Wise’s death he was called “the most important Rabbi in America.”
Rabbi Wise knew President Lincoln personally. His tribute of this greatest of American leaders, despite his human flaws, is an aspirational message for any would-be President and, for that matter, any American citizen and citizen of the world. After reading his words, I felt morally buttressed as I agree with Dr. King’s truth that “the ark of history is long but it bends towards justice.” I felt emboldened as well in the faith that as a nation we will climb out of the pit into which we’ve been dragged, hopefully after November 3 and then beginning anew on January 20, 2021.
“Abraham Lincoln departed… the generous, genial and honest man, who stood at the head of our people in this unprecedented struggle for national existence and popular liberty; whose words and deeds speak aloud of his … mind, purity of heart, honesty of purpose, confidence in the great cause, and implicit faith in the justice of Providence, which inspired him to consistency, courage and self-denial; this Abraham Lincoln who endeared himself to so many millions of hearts, and gained the admiration of other millions of people, both at home and abroad; whom the myriads of freedmen consider their savior, and tens of thousands esteem as high as George Washington, and feel as sincerely and affectionately attached to as Israel to her David…; this Abraham Lincoln, whose greatness was in his goodness, and whose might was in his unshaken faith, was assassinated. Blush, humanity! – He was assassinated. This is the lamentable fact which today bends so many stout hearts with sorrow and grief – speaks by the tears of countless myriads, and the dark clouds of mourning which envelop this great Republic….
…the assassin of Abraham Lincoln brooded over his diabolic schemes in the very capital of our country. Where shall we begin to speak of the enormity of our sins?… must we mention first the barbarous habit of bearing concealed arms to hide cowardice under the garb of crime? … or numerous and costly means to silence the crying conscience?
Repentance is the great lesson which this deplorable event should teach us. Away with your idols of silver and your idols of gold; away with haughtiness, selfishness, delusion, deception and barbarism; prostrate yourselves with humble spirits and contrite hearts…cry for mercy and forgiveness, then rise as better people, better citizens, true children of the living God – and you have honored the memory of him who died… Let him live in your virtues, resurrect in your patriotism; let him glow and shine in your aspirations, for the benefit of humanity, and the triumph of justice and liberty, of light over night, and right over might; and Abraham Lincoln lives as he wished to live – the benefactor of his people; and Abraham Lincoln departed as the Lord had spoken unto him that God might fulfill his divine promise: “and I will make of thee a great nation” [Genesis 12:2 comparing Lincoln with Abraham]. So let us do honor to the memory of the departed martyr of liberty.
The photographer or lithographer, the painter or sculptor, cannot externalize a man; he cannot give you more of him than a faint delineating of the outside, shape and features, the most unimportant portion, the mere case of a person. Monuments, however lofty and extensive, crowded with inscriptions and symbols, tell very little, after all, of the man himself, to whose honor they may be erected. The passions, feelings, struggles, victories, motives and thoughts of a great mind, and each of them is a real fraction of his existence, are so innumerably manifold and change so often, that no artist can represent a considerable portion of them. This is the case especially with the deceased, Abraham Lincoln. The best representation of his figure will not tell posterity who he was. His outside appearance bore no resemblance even to his real nature. The most skillful philosopher will fail in describing the man who stood at the head of affairs during this gigantic struggle, his cares and troubles, his sleepless nights and days of anxiety, his thoughts and his schemes, his triumphs and mortifications, his hopes and fears, and ten thousand more sentiments, feelings and thoughts, which moved his mind in the stormy period of his Presidential term.
…Let the actions of the deceased be our political creed, and Lincoln reigns perpetually; …he is immortal in his people.
“I will restore the Union,” he promised us, and twice he took the solemn oath to protect and enforce the Constitution of the United States. Let these two points be forever the beginning and end of our political creed. He gave liberty to an oppressed race, “And you shall proclaim freedom to all the inhabitants of the land” [Leviticus 25:10 – words inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia]. Let us adhere to this great principle. All shall be free, all equal before the law. He was kind, charitable, and lenient towards the enemies of his country, longed and hoped for peace. – Let also these be cardinal points of our creed. Let us not be led astray by blind passions, hatred, a spirit of revenge; let us act entirely and conscientiously in the very spirit of the departed man, and we honor him. He reigns in death, and holds his dominion as though he were living still.
Let us carry into effect and perpetuate the great desires which heaved the breast of Abraham Lincoln; let us be one people, one, free, just and enlightened; let us be the chosen people to perpetuate and promulgate liberty and righteousness, the union and freedom of the human family; let us break asunder, wherever we can the chains of the bondsman, the fetters of the slave, the iron rod of despotism, the oppressive yoke of tyranny; let us banish strife, discord, hatred, injustice, oppression from the domain of humankind, as far as our hands do reach, and we secure to Abraham Lincoln a perpetual reign and dominion everlasting; we set him the most durable monument in the hearts of the human family; then he is not dead, not removed even, from our midst, and will live forever…the sudden removal of THE PERSON of Abraham Lincoln from our midst;…his personality, his essence and substance, his mind, his soul, his principles, may forever remain with us and be our guiding stars. So we may secure to him a perpetual reign, and a dominion everlasting; for the ideas of union, justice, liberty, peace, kindness, charity, forbearance and goodness are everlasting …
The lamented Abraham Lincoln believed himself to be bone from our bone and flesh from our flesh. He supposed himself to be a descendant of Hebrew parentage. He said so in my presence. And indeed, he preserved numerous features of the Hebrews, both in countenance and character.
…May the Lord send consolation to his bereft widow and children, and heal the burning wound of this country with his departure afflicted on her.”
Rabbi Wise ended his address with a prayer for President Lincoln’s family, the country, and the recovery of William H. Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State (1861-1869), who was nearly mortally wounded that same night on April 14, 1865 by another would-be assassin in league with the murderer of President Lincoln.