Public And Private Mitzvahs
11/28/2012 - 05:49
Steve Lipman
Jacob Javits: No media, please
Jacob Javits: No media, please

While New York cleaned up, the President visited.

In the days after the city’s worst hurricane in history struck, as New Yorkers – along with affected residents of New Jersey and other reeling areas of the Northeast – struggled to get on with the lives that had become bruised by Sandy, Barack Obama came for a visit. For three hours, he traveled to the Rockaways and Staten Island, consoling the victims and offering moral support and seeing the damage first-hand.

According to news stories, the folks who met or saw the Sympathizer-in-Chief were of two minds. Most were delighted. They weren’t forgotten, they said. The President cared. He brought public notice to their plight, as attention had started to wane with Americans’ focusing on the economy, the heating-up Middle East and other matters.

He – and his entourage of officials and media – were getting in the way, said others, probably a minority. They needed a (financial) hand, not a hug or backslap, they said. Anyone who’s not cleaning or shlepping isn’t making things get better, they said.

Maybe both are right. Most people are delighted when the nation’s highest elected official comes by at any time, especially when his message is that the nation is behind those citizens who lost possessions and homes and possibly loved ones. But the President wasn’t bringing money or cleaning supplies. He wasn’t helping the New Yorkers gut their homes or lug their soaked mattresses to the curb from their basement.

For a leader who’d just been re-elected in a bruising campaign that had questioned his capabilities as a leader, a day among the suddenly needy was a perfect opportunity to show his skills and human touch. It was a great photo op.

A President, arguably, could not make such a disaster tour in private.

In Maimonides’ ranking of the hierarchy of charity – which can apply to sharing one’s emotional as well as monetary resources – one of the highest levels is when neither the giver nor the recipient knows the other’s identity. For the recipient, a preservation of his or her pride; for the giver, a check on his or her hubris – no heartfelt thanks to accept.

For a President, this, arguably, is not possible.

Years ago, while working as editor of Buffalo’s weekly Jewish newspaper, I had arranged to interview Jacob Javits, New York State’s legendary, liberal Republican Senator. One Sunday morning, I learned, he would be paying a visit to the resident’s of the city’s Jewish (as we un-PC called it then) old folk’s home. A perfect chance to see the Senator in action, to get some nice photos, I thought.

Forget about it, Javits’ press aide told me. Whenever the Senator travels around the state, particularly to places (as New Yorkers, who don’t realize that Buffalo sits in Western New York) upstate, he would make similar visits, the press aide explained. The Jewish senior citizens enjoyed the time schmoozing with one of their own; the Senator, a native of the Lower East Side, had become one of the most prominent members of their generation. They loved the one-on-one time with someone who understood them, who spoke their language, who cared.

It’s strictly off-the-record, the press aide told me; no photos, no press of any kind. That time with the seniors is personal, not political.

I had to meet Javits another time, another place during his days in Buffalo.

I was disappointed that I would lose the chance to see a politician in a different light. But I came away deeply impressed by Javits, the person.

How many people in his position would turn down some favorable coverage, especially a picture that would make points among Jewish voters?

The Senator’s mitzvah was a private one; his chesed, between him and small group of anonymous people.

When a President visits a city, it automatically becomes a news event.

His presence undoubtedly raises the spirits of the people he hugs physically or touches emotionally.

That’s very admirable.

It’s a mitzvah.

But is it as admirable as a mitzvah that is done in private?

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