Last week, Isaac Herzog was elected to be the 11th president of the state of Israel. As an Israeli, many people asked me, “Who is he? What is his story?”
The truth is, Herzog is actually President Herzog II, and his family’s history is inextricably linked to the story of the Jewish people and the state of Israel.
His grandfather and namesake was the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of the state of Israel. Besides being a brilliant scholar in Judaism and academics, Rabbi Herzog had an outstanding love for his fellow Jews. Because of his actions during and after the Holocaust, historians today agree that he saved thousands of Jews.
During the war, he traveled extensively to meet with world leaders and convince them to alleviate the plight of the Jewish people. He was denied a meeting with the pope, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn’t moved by his entreaties, but it didn’t deter him from his mission.
After the Holocaust, Rabbi Herzog returned to Europe to rescue Jewish children who had been handed over for safekeeping in monasteries and didn’t have living parents to take them back. When the pope refused to decree that the children be returned, Rabbi Herzog personally traveled from place to place, collecting close to a thousand Jewish children and bringing them to the Holy Land.
The chief rabbi’s son was Chaim Herzog. He served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and he was the first president Herzog, serving as Israel’s sixth president. He became famous for his stalwart support of Israel and the Jewish people in the United Nations.
In one of his famous addresses in the United Nations, he spoke about the fundamental right of the Jewish people to their homeland. He said that he, personally, had a stake in the city of Hebron, because the Torah says that Hebron was given by G-d to the Levites, and the Herzogs, he explained, were Levites themselves.
It was a unique speech; it seemed more appropriate for a rabbi in a synagogue than the United Nations. However, his unabashed talk on Jewish tradition and its personal connection to him gave his message a special power and potency. His speech made waves.
What inspired it?
Sometime earlier, Herzog visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, during the Simchat Torah festivities at his famous synagogue known as 770. The world-renowned Jewish leader had an old connection with the Herzogs. During their meeting, he spoke to Chaim Herzog about his role in the United Nations, and encouraged him to declare from the United Nations podium that Hebron belonged to him – to unabashedly base his claims on the Bible and thousands of years of Jewish history.
But Chaim Herzog wasn’t the only visitor. His young 16-year-old son had a moment with the Rebbe, too.
“My father was not an emotional man,” he recounted, “but I saw that it was very important to him that I receive the Rebbe’s blessing. He introduced me to the Rebbe, ‘This is Yitzchak Eizik,’ and the Rebbe gave me his blessing. For my father, it was extremely important that I have this experience.”
At the hakafot, Chaim Herzog and the Israeli delegation were honored to hold the large Torah scrolls for the first round of dancing. Isaac didn’t expect to join, but soon noticed that the Rebbe was pointing at him. The Rebbe instructed that he be given the small Torah, the Rebbe’s personal one. That was a tremendous honor.
The Rebbe’s personal Torah scroll was a heirloom with deep sentimental value. It was a Torah that survived years of persecution in Eastern Europe and had been owned by saintly Jews of previous generations. In 770, nobody ever danced with it aside for the Rebbe himself.
“I was extremely excited to carry it,” President Herzog said, “and I became very popular; everyone in the crowd wanted to kiss my little Torah.
“It was very special,” he said. “It was something that stays with you for life.”
June 13 marks the yahrzeit of the Rebbe. This week we saw that the young and unassuming 16-year-old that got the unprecedented honor of carrying the Rebbe’s Torah, ended up as the president of Israel.
Rabbi Zushe Greenberg is the spiritual leader of Solon Chabad.