On Wednesday night, CNN hosted a town hall featuring the two Democratic presidential contenders, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Both candidates fielded a wide array of audience questions about their proposed domestic and foreign policies, while dueling over who could lay claim to the label of “progressive.” But perhaps the most interesting exchange of the evening had nothing to do with partisan politics.
It began with a question from a rabbi—Jonathan Spira-Savett of Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire. After being introduced by CNN host Anderson Cooper, Spira-Savett posed the following query to Clinton:
Another rabbi, Rabbi Simcha Bunem, taught that every person has to have two pockets and in each pocket they have to carry a different note. And the note in one pocket says: the universe was created for me. And in the other pocket the note says: I am just dust and ashes. And I want you to take a moment and think about what you would tell us about your two pockets. How do you cultivate the ego, the ego that we all know you must have, a person must have to be the leader of the free world, and also the humility to recognize that we know that you can’t be expected to be wise about all the things that the president has to be responsible for?
The spectacle of a yarmulke-clad rabbi asking a stereotypically rabbinic question to the Democratic presidential frontrunner amused many observers. “I think you could have less depressing notes in those pockets, Rabbi,” quipped former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett. “The kiddush after the CNN town hall will be served in the multipurpose room,” added Politico White House reporter Edward-Isaac Dovere. But Clinton took the query very seriously, telling Spira-Savett that “I think about this a lot.”
“I feel very fortunate that I am a person of faith,” she continued, “that I was raised in my church and that I have had to deal and struggle with a lot of these issues about ambition and humility, about service and self-gratification—all of the human questions that all of us deal with. But when you put yourself out into the public arena, I think it’s incumbent upon you to be as self-conscious as possible. This is hard for me.”
Ultimately, Clinton said, humility in politics is about maintaining a balance between one’s capabilities and one’s limitations, admitting that “I don’t know that there is any ever absolute answer.”
She closed by citing one insight that she said had helped her throughout her years in the public eye:
I have lived a very public life for the last 25 or so years. And so I’ve had to be in public dealing with some very difficult issues and personal issues, political, public issues. And I read a treatment of the prodigal son parable by the Jesuit Henri Nouwen, who I think is a magnificent writer of spiritual and theological concerns. And I read that parable and there was a line in it that became just a lifeline for me. And it basically is ‘practice the discipline of gratitude.’
So regardless of how hard the days are, how difficult the decisions are, be grateful. Be grateful for being a human being, being part of the universe. Be grateful for your limitations. Know that you have to reach out to have more people be with you, to support you, to advise you, listen to your critics, answer the questions. But at the end, be grateful. Practice the discipline of gratitude. And that has helped me enormously.
Watch the entire exchange below:
The interaction apparently made an impression on Clinton, according to New York Times reporter Jason Horowitz:
Hillary actually just said this! “Thank you guys. I want to meet the Rabbi.”
— Jason Horowitz (@jasondhorowitz) February 4, 2016