Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Oaths of Office

On the subject of the President of the United States, Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution states: "Before he enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation: —'I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.'"

And here's how it played out yesterday:
Chief Justice John Roberts: Are you prepared to take the oath, Senator?

Senator Barack Obama: I am
Sidebar: the chief justice refers to him as “Senator” (and I, following in his footsteps, do the same) because until reciting the oath, he is not yet president.
Roberts: I, Barack Husein Obama…

Obama: I, Barack…

Roberts: …do solemnly swear

Obama: I, Barack Husein Obama do solemnly swear

Roberts: That I will execute the office of President to the United States faithfully,

Obama: That I will execute…

Roberts: …the off… faithfully the Pres… the office of President of the United States,

Obama: …the office of President of the United States faithfully,

Roberts: And will to the best of my ability,

Obama: And will to the best of my ability,

Roberts: Preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Obama: Preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Roberts: So help you God?

Obama: So help me God.

Roberts: Congratulations, Mr. President.
Okay, a bit bumpy at first, but they managed to get through it. Nevertheless, the word faithfully was said out of order—and some thought that might be a problem. (Less of a problem was the chief justice’s reference to “the office of President to the United States,” as Senator/President Obama did not repeat that error.)

So this evening, 31 hours after the inauguration, they did it again—and the formula was uttered properly. Some found this silly; others found it necessary.

I found it instructive.

The conventional criticism against rigidity in Halachah is that precision shouldn't matter. After all, what does God care? Granted, certain prayers must be said, certain deeds must be done, certain behaviors must be avoided. But why is it so important to get it exactly right? If my intentions are pure and my behavior is in line, more or less, with those intentions—does meticulousness really matter? Is it really so important that my tefillin lay perfectly upon the designated areas of my arm and head? Is it critical that I eat so much matzah or that my lulav reaches a particular height? Does it matter whether every blessing I utter is pronounced clearly?

As you may remember, I am an investment advisor. I once received a call from a client, who was very excited about buying stock in Apple Computers. He was sure that that evening's earnings announcement by the company was going to send the stock higher, much higher, the following morning. And, as things turned out, he was absolutely right.

The only trouble was that he called me at about 3:59 and fifty seconds—a few moments before the stock market closed for the day. There wasn't enough time for him to give me his order and for me to enter it into our system. At the next morning's opening bell, the stock's price was significantly higher and he figured on waiting for it to come back down some before investing. That was seventy-dollars-per-share ago.

Had he called me even a half-minute earlier, he would have had his trade executed and been significantly richer (at least financially). Is that fair? Should the New York Stock Exchange care if I place an order at 3:59 or 4:01? Should the differential of a few seconds impact one's wallet so significantly?

We thus find—unsurprisingly—that Halachah mirrors life. Precision counts. Here's what White House counsel Greg Craig had to say: "[T]he oath appears in the Constitution itself. And out of an abundance of caution, because there was one word out of sequence, Chief Justice Roberts administered the oath a second time."

Once we accept that precision is critical to the proper performance of mitzvos, the question becomes more practical: can we hold ourselves to such high ideals? Can we maintain such unbending standards over the course of our busy day? In short, Can we do it?

I believe the new president would answer: yes, we can.


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