A Letter from George Washington

In the Mikveh Israel archives in Philadelphia, there is a handwritten letter from George Washington. It came about like this. After Washington and the American people had won the War of Independence, the Jewish congregation of Philadelphia, together with the congregations in New York, Charleston and Richmond, wrote a letter to Washington telling him how happy they were about it. Washington sent them a reply that the Philadelphia congregation still possesses. It begins like this:

To the Hebrew Congregations in the cities of Philadelphia, New York, Charleston and Richmond.

The liberality of sentiment towards each other, which marks every political and religious denomination of men in this country stands unparalleled in the History of Nations.

The meaning is this. America, then as now, contained people of very different ideas. However, these people did not fight with one another because they disagreed. They said: "So long as you keep the laws of the country, which are made by people you vote for, you may think what you like, and I will think what I like." This is called tolerance, and is especially important for people who belong to a religions small in numbers. Washington calls it "liberality of sentiment," which is an even better expression, because it means that we allow others freedom willingly, and not grudgingly. Washington also says that America is very unusual in having such freedom, and that is true.

Let us read the next paragraph:

The affection of such a people is a treasure beyond the reach of calculation; and the repeated proofs which my fellow citizens have given of their attachment to me, and approbation of my doings, form the purest source of my temporal felicity. The affectionate expressions of your address again excite my gratitude, and receive my warmest acknowledgment

In this Washington says that the love and confidence which the American people show him is the thing which makes him happiest in the world, and especially he thanks the Jewish congregations for their kind letter. Let us go on:

The power and goodness of the Almighty were strongly manifested in the events of our late glorious revolution; and his kind interposition in our behalf has been no less visible in the establishment of our present equal government. In war he directed the sword; and in peace he has ruled in our councils. My agency in both has been guided by the best intentions, and a sense of the duty which I owe my country.
Here Washington says that behind the events of the Revolution we can see God's direction, and that God guided the people to their freedom. Washington feels that the victory belongs not to himself, but to God who sustained his righteous cause.

Washington continues:

And as my exertions have hitherto been amply rewarded by the approbation of my fellow citizens, I shall endeavor to deserve a continuance of it by my future conduct.
Here he declares that the love of the people is sufficient reward for what he had done, and hopes that he will continue to deserve it.

He concludes:

May the same temporal and eternal blessings which you implore for me rest upon your congregations.

George Washington

In other words, May God bless you in body and spirit.

Now this is not only an historic letter, since it was written by Washington, it is a beautiful letter too. It is written clearly and concisely, and I wish some of you would persuade your English teachers to study it with you in class, and show you some of its rhythm and fineness of expression.

But it contains beautiful ideas too. Notice especially Washington's humility, and his belief that all things are of God. Notice his kindliness and tolerance.

As a group, at least once a year, we make a point of remembering the cruel Amalekites, who stand for everything that is unkind in the world. Let us also remember Washington and his letter to us, and we shall realize that the spirit of the Amalekites is something which, sooner or later, is destroyed, while the spirit of Washington is something that endures for ever, to give us hope and inspiration, and will be the same a hundred or a thousand years from now.