Thirty-one hours after he spoke the words before more than a million people gathered at the National Mall, and many tens if not hundreds of millions more watching from around the word, President Obama retook his inaugural oath, accepting the responsibility to "faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States . . . preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." In the first go-around, Chief Justice John Roberts confused the wording, causing the President to also slightly deviate from the text prescribed by the Constitution.
From what I've read, constitutional experts, as well as the White House's counsel, insisted that a repeat of the oath was not necessary, but the President felt that a retake would be appropriate—if only to calm all the bloggers and pundits who jumped upon what would seem to be a meaningless mistake. The oath of commitment to what is possibly the most important position in the world must follow the words of the Founding Fathers—to the finest detail.
This morning, as I prepared to recite the blessings that are recited upon awakening, I was reminded of a story:
In the fall of 1974, a venerated Chabad chassid and scholar, Rabbi Shmuel Levitin, passed away. A few days after his demise, the Rebbe recounted at a public gathering something that Reb Shmuel had told him years back.
Reb Shmuel spent eight years of his life in Siberian exile, sent there by the Soviets as punishment for his religious activities. "But what pained him most," the Rebbe told the crowd gathered, "was that he had no siddur (prayer book) with him, and could not remember the precise pronunciation of one of the words used in the morning blessings." One of these blessings thanks G‑d "who gives strength to the weary." The Hebrew word for weary can be pronounced "ayef" or "ya'ef," and the chassid could not remember which one was chosen by the sages for the recitation of this blessing. This, the Rebbe explained, was emblematic of a person whose primary concern in life was his worship of the Almighty.
Prayer is called "the service of the heart," as the most important aspect of prayer is our concentration, sincerity, and the emotional experience. Why then would the chassid be so disturbed about such a seemingly trivial detail?
When President Obama took the oath for the second time, I had a new appreciation and understanding for this anecdote.
If every mitzvah or prayer is an eternal moment, an opportunity to commit and connect to the infinite G‑d, Creator of heaven and earth, a deed that brings light and meaning to the entire cosmos, then the details chosen by the Jewish "Founding Fathers" are of invaluable importance.
And thus the story of a man's anguish over a detail in the prayer book captured his identity: an individual who truly viewed every moment and mitzvah as a G‑dly mission in this world, a moment of cosmic – and even infinite – importance.
A side note:
As a child I had the privilege of attending the farbrengens – public gatherings – led by the Rebbe on several occasions. At the conclusion the farbrengens, the Rebbe would recite the after-eating blessing or blessings. The Rebbe always recited these blessings from the prayer book, even the two-liners. This despite the fact that this is a blessing that the Rebbe must have recited thousands of times, blessings that any five year old child reared in an observant home can say by heart in his sleep. (Click here to watch this, :57-1:15 of the video.)
Chief Justice Roberts is yet young, and in all probability will be administering the presidential oath for years to come. Perhaps he should take a lesson from the Rebbe...and bring along a copy...