Address at the Installation of Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis as Chief Rabbi

Published 1 September 2013
CR Sacks Mirvis HRH e1380661206111

The following is a transcript of the address delivered by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks at the induction of Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth on 1st September 2013.

Your Royal Highness, Deputy Prime Minister, Leader of Opposition, Your Graces, Your Excellencies, Dayanim, Rabbanim, President of the United Synagogue, President of the Board of Deputies, Distinguished Guests.

First on behalf of all us I want to thank your Royal Highness for the honour of your presence here with us today. Never before has the induction of the Chief Rabbi been graced with so Royal a presence, and it testifies to the generosity of spirit and the greatness of heart you have shown to all the faiths, while remaining steadfast and exemplary in your own. May God bless you and may you, through all you do, continue to bless us.

Chief Rabbi Mirvis. How fitting that phrase sounds.

This is not the first time I have inducted you as my successor. I did so as the Rabbi of the Western Marble Arch synagogue.

Nor is this the first time you have been inducted as Chief Rabbi. I was blessed to have both a predecessor and a successor who had both previously been Chief Rabbis of Ireland. But it is the first time that I do so with such emotion.

We are just a few yards from Abbey Road where the Beatles recorded almost all of their hits. And to paraphrase the words of one of their best songs: You say hello, and I say goodbye.

I cannot tell you how delighted I am for you and Chief Rebbetsin Valerie. This is one of the great positions of rabbinic leadership in the Jewish world, one of the most respected, one of the most influential, as well as one of the most challenging.

For almost every day of 22 years Elaine and I have felt it an overwhelming privilege to be able to serve so great a community of communities, of wonderful people who give so much to Jewish life and the life of this great country. And now we hand this office to you, knowing that you will serve it with distinction, wisdom and grace, as you have done throughout your rabbinic career until now. You are the right man in the right job at the right time. May God be always with you in the years ahead.

Since Rosh Hashanah begins in just four days time earlier than it has since 1899, then let me take my blessings to you in terms of the three great festivals of Tishri, each of which represents a different aspect of Jewish leadership.

First Rosh Hashanah whose unique mitzvah is the blowing of the shofar. And it was Isaiah to whom God said: kashofar Harem kolecha. Lift up your voice like a shofar.

A leader is like a shofar. It is the sound of the shofar that defines the mood of the community. Sometimes it is a tekiah, a clarion call summoning people to a collective task. Sometimes it is a shevarim or a teruah, a sound of tears as we weep, whether for ourselves or others.

A shofar is always simple and plain. No great art went into its manufacture. No one, to my knowledge, has yet written a shofar concerto. A shofar moves us because it is our cry to God. At Mount Sinai where the people heard kol shofar chazak meod, it was God’s cry to us.

Let your voice be clear and simple, calling us to the greatest vocation with which a people was ever charged, to be God’s witnesses in an often wayward world. And never forget those extraordinary words from the Unetaneh tokef prayer we will say in just a few days time: uveshofar gadol yitaka, the great shofar sounds, vekol demama daka yishama, and a still small voice is heard, umalachim yechafezun, and the angels tremble. The Prophet Elijah discovered that God was not in the whirlwind, the earthquake or the fire, but in the still, small voice of calm, that is gentle but clear. Let it guide us through the wilderness of these turbulent times. And may it move us all, as the shofar moves us all, to be a little better, humbler, and more spiritual than we were before.

Second, Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur the High Priest placed his hands on the seir hamishtaleach, the scape goat, and over it confessed the sins of the people.

We used to have in our office a cartoon of the man who served as Chief Rabbi in early Victorian England, Solomon Hirschel. In those days people in Britain were not quite sure of what a Chief Rabbi was, so the caption underneath reads, Rabbi Solomon Hirschel, High Priest of the Jews. There was a time when I used to say, only one thing has changed. Now instead of being High Priest a Chief Rabbi is the seir hamishtaleach.

But there is one line in the Torah’s description of the holiest task of the holiest man on the holiest day of the year: כָל אָדָם לֹא יִהְיֶה בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד בְּבֹאוֹ לְכַפֵּר בַּקֹּדֶשׁ

“No one was to be with him in the tent of meeting when he went to secure atonement in the most holy place.”

Beneath all the public work of this most public of religious offices is the private communion you have with God, when you pray, when you learn, when you open yourself to heaven in the very depths of your soul. That is where there has to be honesty, openness, even vulnerability. You need to hear the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, whispering to you through the texts of our tradition and the wisdom of our ancestors.

You have to hear the call beneath the noise, summoning you, and through you, us, to our sacred task as mamlechet cohanim vegoi kadosh, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. It is that private relationship with God – not newspaper headlines, not popularity or public acclaim – that defines what your leadership will be. May Hashem’s presence never part from you, and through that private encounter may you lift us to the heights.

And lastly Succot, what in English we call Tabernacles, when we leave the comfort of our homes and for a week know what it feels like to live in a dirat aray, a temporary dwelling, open to the wind, the rain and the cold, with only leaves as our shelter. I call Succot the festival of insecurity. And it is one of the most counter-intuitive of all gestures of faith that we call Succot, zman simchatenu, “our festival of joy.”

I have always believed, and acted on that belief, that Judaism is not just for Jews but for the world. So said Moses, so said Isaiah, and so said God to Jonah and Jeremiah. Our task is to be true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith, and the stronger we are in our Judaism the greater will be the blessings we bring to the world.

And if we were to ask what is the greatest message we can bring to the world in this time of unprecedented change and of great danger, not just to Israel, not just to Jews, but to all of us, it would be the message of Succot, the one festival according to the prophet Zechariah that will one day be celebrated by all of humanity.

And it is this: you can live in the midst of great insecurity, exposed to all the winds of change, but if you sit betzelah de-mehemnuta, under the shadow of faith, you need feel no fear, for God is with us; and in the midst of that vulnerability you experience zman simchatenu, a time of joy.

Ours is an age of religious extremism, and religious extremism is always driven by fear: fear of change, fear of loss, fear of a world beyond our control. And it is our task as Jews to say: faith is not fear. Faith is the antidote to fear. Lo ira ra ki ata imadi. I will fear no evil for You are with me. Be a voice, Rabbi Mirvis, of tolerance, and gentleness and generosity of spirit.

The ancient world, the pagan world, believed that the gods were to be found in power and the elemental forces of nature. It was Abraham and his descendants who taught the world that God is to be found in love and forgiveness, two virtues all too rare today. Teach us all, to love and forgive, and you will be one of the great religious leaders of our time.

Rabbi Mirvis, you are now Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis; so your initials now read C.R.E.M, Crem. And I can safely say that for us you are crème de la crème. May God bless you and Rebbetzen Valerie and your lovely family. May He give you wisdom and strength and confidence and courage. May you lead us all to hear God’s call and inspire us all to do His will.