On February 3, I had the honor of participating in a nationally-televised town hall with Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. I was selected to ask Secretary Clinton a question.
Here is the exchange, in video and in transcript:
RABBI JONATHAN SPIRA-SAVETT: Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught that every person has to have two pockets and in each pocket they have to carry a different note. And the note in one pocket says the universe was created for me. And in the other pocket the note says I am just dust and ashes.
And I want you to take a moment and think about what you would tell us about your two pockets. How do you cultivate the ego, the ego that we all know you must have, a person must have to be the leader of the free world, and also the humility to recognize that we know that you can't be expected to be wise about all the things that the president has to be responsible for?
CLINTON: Another absolutely wonderful question.
Thank you, Rabbi.
I think about this a lot. Um, I feel very fortunate that I am a person of faith, that I was raised in my church and that I have had to deal and struggle with a lot of these issues about ambition and humility, about service and self-gratification, all of the human questions that all of us deal with, but when you put yourself out into the public arena, I think it's incumbent upon you to be as self-conscious as possible.
This is hard for me. You know, I never thought I'd be standing on a stage here asking people to vote for me for president. I always wanted to be of service. I met my husband, who was such a natural, knew exactly what he wanted to do. I was happy to support him while I worked in the Children's Defense Fund and legal services and taught law, and, you know, had our daughter.
I never thought I would do this. And so I have had to come to grips with how much more difficult it often is for me to talk about myself than to talk about what I want to do for other people, or to tell stories about, you know, the man I met in Rochester who -- whose AIDS medicine is no longer affordable. And that -- that can grip me and make me feel like there's something I can do about that.
So I'm constantly trying to balance how do I assume the mantle of a position as essentially august as president of the United States not lose track of who I am, what I believe in and what I want to do to serve?
I have that dialogue at least, you know, once a day in some setting or another. And I don't know that there is any ever absolute answer, like, OK, universe, here I am, watch me roar or oh, my gosh, I can't do it, it's just overwhelming, I have to retreat.
It's that balance that I keep to try to find in my life that I want to see back in our country. And it will be something that I continue to talk about with a -- you know, with a group of faith advisers who are close to me.
I get a scripture lesson every morning from a minister that I have a really close personal relationship with. And, you know, it just gets me grounded. He gets up really early to send it to me. So, you know, there it is in my in box at 5:00 a.m..
I have friends who are rabbis who send me notes, give me readings that are going to be discussed in services. So I really appreciate all that incoming.
And the final thing I would say, because again, it's not anything I've ever talked about this much publicly, everybody knows I -- I have lived a very public life for the last 25 or so years. And so I've had to be in public dealing with some very difficult issues and personal issues, political, public issues. And I read a, um, a treatment of the prodigal son parable by the Jesuit Henri Nouwen, who I think is a magnificent writer of spiritual and theological concerns. And I -- I read that parable and there was a line in it that became just a lifeline for me. And it basically is practice the discipline of gratitude.
So regardless of how hard the days are, how difficult the decisions are, be grateful. Be grateful for being a human being, being part of the universe. Be grateful for your limitations. Know that you have to reach out to have more people be with you, to support you, to advise you, listen to your critics, answer the questions.
But at the end, be grateful. Practice the discipline of gratitude. And that has helped me enormously. [END OF TRANSCRIPT]
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A lot of people have been asking me for my interpretation of her answer, and whether I have decided to vote for her now. But really the whole point is that she is the candidate, she responded, and you can assess her response. So you can stop reading here if you like.
I do have a few broader thoughts. Which I'll share, not least because I too have an ego!
It was amazing to me that the candidate took about five minutes to respond, in what might have been the longest answer of the evening. I chose my words carefully -- I want you to take a moment… the ego that we all know you must have -- I wanted to make it a bit harder for Secretary Clinton to take shelter behind the concept of "a president", to retreat to platitudes of "humble servant." You can judge. She said much more than I expected. I think it was amazing that she owned up to issues "about ambition and humility, about service and self-gratification." You don't hear politicians talk about their own ambition and self-gratification.
All I did was to catalyze that, and if that leads to good deliberation about Secretary Clinton or stays with her if she wins, then I did something worthwhile.
And a lot of the credit goes to Kerry Rubin, the CNN producer for Anderson Cooper who read my op-ed in the Union Leader and called me. She and her staff curated the evening. I gave Ms. Rubin a couple of ideas questions, and it was she who picked this theme – and that made all the difference. She said immediately that it was different from any other kind of question that's been asked or that had been submitted for the evening. Darren Garnick, our congregant, suggested I introduce my question with a rabbinic quote; and that's when the quote from Reb Simcha Bunim came to me!
It seemed as though I helped release something that Secretary Clinton really wanted to talk about. And I bet that a lot of the other candidates, Republican and Democratic, do too. I hope that my day as an Internet meme connected to one candidate doesn't take away from my hope that we would be engaging all the candidates this way. That's what six other Nashua clergy and I were hoping to do. The Forward has a great interview with me and I talk about that. (Good interview by JTA too.)
This afternoon, we gathered the kids of our Religious School, grades 3-7. For about twenty minutes they were in rapt attention. I started off by talking about Jews and freedom. That we are the Jewish people because we were freed from Pharaoh, and that our Jewish families were all living under oppressive rule very recently before America. I talked to them about how important it is for our Jewish community to be known through our involvement in choosing who will make decisions about our society and the world. How proud we should be, if the world got to see that that's who we are as Jews because I was on TV. I showed them the video, and the kids from every grade asked me all kinds of questions. I closed with my signature teaching, about how I say the traditional morning blessing each time I enter the voting booth – she'asani ben chorin, thanking God for making me free. They sang it with me.
If my moment in the spotlight helps inspire them to care about society and world, then that's what makes it worthwhile.
Secretary Clinton did in fact say, “I want to meet the rabbi.” She said this to State Sen. Bette Lasky and her husband Elliot, Beth Abraham members who are big Clinton supporters and friends. So after the program was done, they beckoned me over and Secretary Clinton came up to talk to me. We spoke for another few minutes.
I got to tell her how much we as voters want to hear her and other candidates talk to us in this way. I said she should look for opportunities to do that. She said to me, I think perceptively, that it's hard to do unless an occasion arises like my question. Otherwise, she said, the media or others spin it as someone trying to use their faith or their introspection in a manipulative or self-serving way.
From 1996-1999, I taught eleventh grade American Studies at the Solomon Schechter High School of Long Island with Leslie Bazer. We created our own course, about being a citizen and an individual, a “connected critic”, a Jew and an American. So gratifying are all the Facebook shout-outs from my students in that class, most of whom I haven't heard from in years. To know they learned something and bring it with them today is unbelievable.
I invite your comments. Most of all -- if you're in New Hampshire, learn everything you can still about the candidates and vote next Tuesday. And for the rest of you, the relay now is yours.