Most politicians are savvy enough to release a statement acknowledging the Jewish holiday, but few really have a “feel” for the celebration and its centrality in the collective experience of Jews. But the Bidens, who are Catholic, are not an ordinary political family. They have a decades-long relationship with the Jewish community in Delaware and, moreover, a unique ability to express empathy with others.
In that vein, they issued a remarkably sensitive statement for the holiday. The message should be read in full, but several passages struck me as remarkably attuned to the bittersweet mood of this year’s celebration. “Jill and I know how hard it is for so many families, friends, and communities to not be physically together at Passover this year,” they write. “The thought of all those grandchildren and grandparents, siblings and cousins, neighbors, and strangers in need who will mark their Passover seders alone this year tears at our hearts. But we also know that you are still together in the senses of the word that matter most; blocks away or miles apart, across virtual connections and the connection of common faith, you nevertheless celebrate as one.”
The Bidens plainly understand the religious underpinnings of the occasion. “If Passover teaches us anything, it’s that a united and open-hearted people can come through any challenge and emerge stronger on the other side,” they write. “The American people and the people of all nations are facing down a new challenge today — a treacherous journey across unfamiliar terrain. And like the heroes of the Passover story, we will survive that journey by calling upon the values that define us: our caring for strangers, our strength in unity, and our faith in better days.”
Jill Biden held a call Tuesday afternoon with leaders of the Jewish community, which members of the press were allowed to join. After a brief introduction, Michael Beals, who calls himself “the Bidens’ rabbi,” recounted his encounters with the Bidens over the years, such as when they showed up unannounced to a constituent’s shiva (mourning) service. Beals observed that Joe Biden is the definition of “mensch” — a person known for decency.
After Jill Biden began, Joe Biden made a surprise appearance. The former vice president paid tribute to the tenacity, resilience and faith of the Jewish people over thousands of years, and thanked the rabbi and the Jewish community for teaching him so much over the years. He assured those on the call, “We’re going to get through this.”
After a prolonged sign-off (Joe Biden is not one to abruptly end any encounter), his wife took over. She too acknowledged the “dissonance” of a holiday in which many will separate “apart but not alone.” She spoke eloquently that this year, we feel more acutely the ancient Hebrews’ fear and longing for freedom. In such a time as this, she said, we need this holiday even more. She explained the Passover story tells us that “a journey may begin in grief [but can] end in triumph.” It was a message that hit home as we camp out at home awaiting relief from our communal misery.
The Bidens’ written and verbal remarks were a powerful reminder of their innate decency, but also of the void that has been left in our public life for over three years. Before the current Oval Office occupant, Americans had enjoyed presidents who at least aspired to be empathetic, thoughtful, knowledgeable and considerate of others. I suspect many Americans, especially in a time of national tragedy, when family traditions are out of sync and familiar activities are off limits, pine for such a president again.
On the other side of the covid-19 plague, we look forward to the return of physical, psychological and moral health — and to a national figure to whom we can look for comfort and kindness.