Two rabbis are sitting at a table in a kosher restaurant in Washington DC. And who walks in? Answer: Natan Sharansky, the famous Soviet Refusenick and Israeli statesman, his wife Avital, and their daughter Hannah with a baby carriage.
Perhaps, this was not exactly the punchline to the joke you were expecting (a priest or an imam maybe)! But immediately, confronted with this situation, my mind turned to protocol. Was the right thing to do to leave the Sharanskys alone and to let them eat their meal in peace? What is a rabbi, let alone anyone, supposed to do when we run into a famous person?
I followed the lead of my senior colleague. We walked over to the table and welcomed the Sharanskys warmly to Washington. They were quite modest given the wellspring of their life achievements. My colleague told them how proud he was to have marched with Avital during the heart of the “Free Soviet Jewry” movement. Being too young to remember that time in history, I shook Hannah’s hand and we briefly shared baby war stories. Her daughter is nine months old and is sleeping through the night. I told her I was happy to find out that there was light at the end of the tunnel.
Only in retrospect I can see the missed opportunity. There is a beautiful blessing in Jewish tradition that we are supposed to see when we see a head of state: she-natan mikevodo levasar vedam: “Thank you God, for giving of your glory to those of flesh and blood.” Given that the Hebrew word for “to give” in the blessing is the word Natan—which would have also been the name of the recipient—it would have made for a real zinger.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20. Next year, when I see him, along with dozens of other government leaders at AIPAC, I will be ready.