During the election, there was much discussion in the Jewish press about the fact that, no matter who won, the president would have a Jewish son-in-law. But from my perspective, Michelle Obama may have been our first Jewish First Lady. Not because of her stance on Israel (not touching that one) or the fact that she regularly attended the White House seder, but because the values she promoted find their roots in our Jewish values, and made me proud to hold her up as a role model.
There is a text in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) where Shammai teaches, “Make a fixed time for study, say little and do much and greet every person with a pleasant face.” For me, this text embodies so much of who Michelle Obama is and what I will miss about her:
1. Make a fixed time for study. Michelle Obama cares about learning, not just for her own family, not just for her own community, but for those all over the world who lack access to a quality education. Her own story speaks to the power of education, and she never misses an opportunity to encourage people to learn, to go to school, and to get an education any way they can. Her own children are, by all accounts, hardworking and intelligent young women. In fact, her daughter Sasha missed the President’s farewell address to study for a test—a sign that her mother is passing this passion for study and learning down to the next generation.
2. Say little and do much. When Michelle Obama speaks, people listen (and often tear up), because her words are careful, pointed, and inspiring. But it isn’t just her words that inspire people to action. It is that she does so much to back up those words. With her Let’s Move! initiative, she does the pushups and plays basketball and shows us her workout routines so that we know that she believes what she is saying, that it is not just empty words. And with the White House garden and her push for healthier school lunches, we know that she is eating salads right along with us. We know that she acts, so the times when she does speak carry tremendous weight.
3. Greet every person with a pleasant face. Perhaps Michelle Obama’s most famous phrase is, “When they go low, we go high.” To me, this is a 2017 equivalent of this Mishnah. No matter how many terrible things people say about her or the myriad ways people have tried to tear her and her family down, Michelle Obama is able to rise above it. But more than just being able to put on a smile, we also know that she’s a lot of fun. Whether it be navigating CVS with Ellen or Carpool Karaoke on late night TV, Michelle Obama uses warmth and humor to bring you into her world.
And she goes beyond greeting everyone with a pleasant face. She uses her whole body to hug it out. Over and over, you see Michelle Obama giving intense, strong hugs to teachers, to winning sports teams, to military families, to kids in their schools, and to her own family. You can tell, through her body language, that she is in the moment and cares for the people who are around her. She is your friend, and your mom, and your role model. Michelle Obama, you will be missed.