"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," declared Shakespeare's Juliet about her beloved Romeo. The upshot of this line is to imply that names do not matter, actions do. While I am in full support of the notion that actions mean quite a lot - a notion that Jewish values completely supports - I believe that names are equally important and so does Judaism. For the ancient rabbis, it was a near heresy to quote Jewish law without giving the appropriate attribution to the rabbi who conceived the law or legal concept. It was considered theft! Perhaps this was an early version of intellectual property rights, but it seems that it went far deeper than just giving credit where credit was due. A name, when given the proper respect will endure forever.
Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, derives its very name from this concept. People who have a working knowledge of Hebrew might assume that the words yad vashem mean "hand and name." But, a yad is not only a hand in biblical Hebrew, it is a monument and shem is not just a name - but a name that endures. The words yad vashem come directly from a verse in the Book of Isaiah, "I will give them, in My house, and within My walls, a monument and a name - better than sons and daughters, I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish." (56: 5) The establishment of Yad Vashem, the museum, was meant to be both the place of the Jewish people's permanent monument to victims of the Holocaust, but also a place where names would endure forever, fulfilling the Jewish value of remembering the dead even when there remains no family to mourn them.
I bring this up, this week, because on Monday the United States will celebrate Presidents Day. Except, we aren't celebrating Presidents Day at all - there is no US holiday with such a name! That is the colloquial name for the day, but, in truth, the holiday is Washington's Birthday (he was born on February 22), established officially as a memorial day on Washington's first birthday after he died in 1800. In 1885, Washington's Birthday was, by law, established as a federal holiday. For the last four decades, however, we have celebrated it, not on February 22nd, but on the third Monday in February (to give us all a three day weekend). This created the false notion that it was meant to commemorate both Washington and Lincoln (who's birthday is the 12th), which some states, like Lincoln's home of Illinois, already celebrated. As time marched on, people started to refer to it as Presidents Day, and thus, began to lump all the presidents into one omnibus holiday - even the short lived, scandal filled, philandering Warren G. Harding!
This is what flies in the face of the Jewish concept of creating a yad vashem (not THE Yad Vashem) - that some individuals deserve both physical monuments and to have a name that endures forever. We can all agree that some presidents are worthy of neither a monument, nor an enduring reputation! We might not all agree on which presidents fall on which list, but I think we are unanimous in that George Washington was worthy. He was worthy not only as the first president for our country, but because of the ideals he represented. Washington had every reason not to volunteer for his role as General and later as President. He was a wealthy land owner, who could have been like most of his fellow gentry, who sided with the British merely to protect their own interests. Later, after two terms as President, he could have been president for life, as many wished he would be, but he refused in recognition that we did not want dictators, but elected officials with finite days as leader of our nation. Add to his bravery, kindness and honesty, among other laudable qualities. These are the characteristics which led both to the Washington Monument, and his name being given an enduring memorial by having his birthday made the only federal holiday named for a President of the United States.
For we Jews, Washington set an important precedent, that we would be treated as equals here in the new Promised Land. He set that tone in his letter to the Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island, which I have excerpted here:
The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy - a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants - while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid. [as quoted from the prophet Micah 4:4)
So, while many of our fellow citizens will celebrate Presidents Day this Monday, I would encourage you to celebrate Washington's Birthday. Names matter. Washington mattered - for us Jewish Americans, for all Americans. His ideals seem to matter more today than ever.
Shabbat shalom and Yom Huledet Samech l'vashingtone (Happy Birthday to Washington),