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Sen. Joseph Lieberman: A personal tribute

He was a proud, vocal Jew, unreserved and totally committed to his Judaism.

Joe Lieberman, former U.S. senator for the state of Connecticut, speasks during a press conference devoted to the new Babyin Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv, Ukraine, Oct. 19, 2017. Credit: Krysja/Shutterstock.
Joe Lieberman, former U.S. senator for the state of Connecticut, speasks during a press conference devoted to the new Babyin Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv, Ukraine, Oct. 19, 2017. Credit: Krysja/Shutterstock.
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Rabbi Warren Goldstein
Rabbi Warren Goldstein is the chief rabbi of South Africa and the founder of the International Shabbat Project.

The words that come to me as I absorb with great sadness the sudden passing of former Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, of blessed memory, are from the verses describing his namesake, Joseph in ancient Egypt: How all who encountered him, from the top echelons of government to those imprisoned in its dungeons, could see that “God was with him, and everything he did, God made succeed in his hand.” (Genesis 39:3). As Pharaoh himself said, on appointing Joseph the prime minister of Egypt, “Could we find another like him—a man who has the spirit of God within him … there is no one as insightful and wise.” (Genesis 41:38-39)

Like Joseph in ancient Egypt, as a U.S. senator, Lieberman held high office in a global superpower, succeeding in everything he did and enjoying Divine blessings. God’s ambassador for the Torah’s noblest attributes—humility, wisdom, integrity and compassion—he was the ultimate Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying the Divine name in the world, carrying it with befitting dignity and grace.

Lieberman was a public servant in the truest sense, living, as our sages describe, “for the sake of Heaven.” His memoir, In Praise of Public Life, is a tribute to the idea of politics for a higher purpose. The book is about the importance of making a difference; of getting involved in public life in order to make the world a better place. He writes, paraphrasing Pirkei Avot (“The Ethics of Our Fathers”): “The day is short … and there is much work to be done, tikkun olam, repairing our government and improving our beloved country and world. We are not required to complete the work ourselves, but, as good and grateful citizens, we cannot withdraw from it either.”

The senator was a man of principle. He was the first national Democrat to publicly criticize President Bill Clinton for his infidelity, drawing the anger of his party and risking his political career. And yet, the following year, Al Gore—vice president under Clinton—turned to Lieberman to join the ticket for the 2000 presidential elections, making him the first Jewish candidate on a major-party ticket for the White House.

But Lieberman wasn’t just Jewish by birth; he was a proud, vocal Jew, unreserved and totally committed to his Judaism. In the heat of the campaign, he made it publicly known that he would not be campaigning on Shabbat. As renowned political commentator Charles Krauthammer put it, “Jews in American public life are old news; Orthodox Jews are not. … Which is why Lieberman’s entry onto the national stage is so significant. It not only confirms and ratifies the full entry of Jews into the higher councils of American life. It marks the entry of Judaism into the deeper recesses of the American consciousness.”

And at the heart of the senator’s own Jewish consciousness was Shabbat. In the opening pages of The Gift of Rest—the title of his book on the subject—he describes how delayed by an important vote at the Senate, he had to walk home one Friday night in the rain:

“It’s Friday night and it’s one of those torrential downpours that we get in Washington, D.C., and I’m walking from the Capitol to my home in Georgetown getting absolutely soaked—the United States Capitol policemen at my side as we make our way up Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol building towards our distant goal, a four-and-a-half-mile walk. But I do not—indeed, I cannot—accept a ride in the car.”

Reflecting on this symbolic moment he wrote, “Sabbath observance is a gift that has anchored, shaped and inspired my life.”

It was through Lieberman’s passion for Shabbat that I got to know him personally. We shared a vision of spreading Shabbat in the world. He kindly joined the International Advisory Board of The Shabbat Project, giving so generously of his time and effort, and sharing his connections and wisdom. He was a cherished advisor and mentor, and his gentle warmth and friendship meant the world to me. I will miss him dearly.

Our world is dimmer without Sen. Joseph Lieberman. Let us illuminate it by living the values he personified—sharing the light of Shabbat, dignity, decency and faith in our world.

May his memory be a blessing, like his beloved Shabbat, “the source of all blessing.”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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