(RNS) — An American president — of a certain age, with mitigating health factors — falls prey to the most serious public health crisis in the last century. Because he won’t admit its severity. Because he has mocked every reasonable deterrent.
What is really on the ballot this November?
Masculinity. Toxic masculinity.
President Donald Trump publicly mocked former Vice President Joe Biden for the size of his mask, and for the supposed overabundance of caution that he was showing. Trump emerged from Walter Reed hospital, too early for anyone’s medical tastes, to publicly proclaim that the virus is really no big deal, don’t let it dominate your life, etc.
Translation: A “real man” has no business being afraid of this.
Trump’s followers seem to believe this. At least, that is why they insist on being unmasked at rallies. There are even women who have accepted Trump’s essential definition of masculinity.
Everything DJT does, and has ever done, has been because he wades in the shallow waters of Testosterone River. His grandiosity, his boasts about the conquests of women — even and especially his boasting about the size of his privates — he is chromosomes on parade.
He knows what he is doing. The late German historian George Mosse taught that every culture defines its own sense of true masculinity and then uses that definition to portray those who are Other as differently or insufficiently masculine.
Recall Hanz and Franz, the Teutonic bodybuilders on “Saturday Night Live,” who laughed at the “girly men.”
In his heart of hearts, I suspect that DJT wants to be a king.
Let us ask, however: How does a “real man” who is a “real king” behave? Let us turn to the Bible for that answer.
King Hezekiah of Judah was one of the Jewish people’s greatest kings, ruling the southern kingdom of Judah. After the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, Hezekiah welcomed the refugees. He understood that, despite the political divisions, the residents of Judah and Israel were one people. Hezekiah built a tunnel, south of the Temple Mount, which still bears his name, thus ensuring a constant flow of water into the normally dry Jerusalem.
But the real lesson is how Hezekiah dealt with a serious illness. Here’s how the Bible’s Second Book of Kings tells it:
“In those days, Hezekiah fell dangerously ill. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz came and said to him, ‘Thus said the LORD: Set your affairs in order, for you are going to die; you will not get well.’ Thereupon Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD. He said, ‘Please, O LORD, remember how I have walked before You sincerely and wholeheartedly, and have done what is pleasing to You.’ And Hezekiah wept profusely.
“Before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the LORD came to him: ‘Go back and say to Hezekiah, the ruler of My people: Thus said the LORD, the God of your father David: I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears. I am going to heal you; on the third day you shall go up to the House of the LORD.’”
How did Hezekiah respond to his own fragility? He turned his face to the wall. He turned away from his people, his courtiers, his family — and presented himself, in sacred solitude, to God.
He offered his own goodness as his defense against his illness. (Full disclosure: Do not try this at home. When it comes to the battle between a virus and virtue, I suspect that the virus will win.)
When I was growing up, I learned the lesson: “Big boys don’t cry.”
“Real” men in the Bible cry. Abraham wept when Sarah died. Jacob wept when he met his beloved, Rachel. Joseph wept when he reunited with his brothers. Even Esau, that biblical paragon of macho, wept when he realized that his brother Jacob had cheated him out of his blessing.
Hezekiah cried, when he believed that his life was at serious risk.
Imagine how Trump could have summoned up a different vision of masculinity — at any number of key moments.
Imagine a different response to Biden, describing the struggles of his son Hunter. Imagine if Trump had said: “Joe, I never knew that about Hunter. I am really glad that he is doing better.”
Imagine if Trump had simply said: “I have been sick. This is dangerous stuff. Take care of yourselves.”
He would not have needed to cry. That would have been asking too much.
Because DJT is a “real man.”
Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin serves as the senior rabbi of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Florida.