Thoughts for Ellul
Recorded in 5774
These six reflections written and recorded by Rabbi Sacks cover all the themes appropriate to this time of year, including judgment, teshuvah, self-change, faith, love, hope, spirituality, apologies, and forgiveness.
This year we approach the New Year with more fear and trembling than for a very long time. This summer, in Gaza, we saw Israel, at double risk of Hamas missiles and tunnels, forced into some of the most difficult choices a nation has ever had to make. How do you fight a war against terror when the terrorists take a whole people hostage and hide bombs and rocket launchers in schools, hospitals and mosques?
As Amos Oz asked, what would you do if your neighbour across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap, and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery? The Torah says that when Jacob was about to meet Esau, after a separation of 22 years, he was ‘very afraid and distressed.’ Says Rashi: ‘very afraid’ that he might be killed. ‘distressed’ that he might have to kill. The commentators on Rashi ask the obvious question. You are allowed to kill in self defence. So why was Jacob distressed that he might have to kill a man who was about to kill him. The short answer is that if life matters to you, you are distressed even if you are morally justified. This summer, Israelis and Israel had to defend itself but it did so with no joy, only distress.
This was also the summer in which antisemitism reappeared with a vengeance in the streets of Europe, the old antisemitism of the far right and far left, and the new antisemitism that demonizes Israel and seeks not peace but destruction. I sensed a wave of anxiety go through the Jewish world. Is this it? After all the tears and tragedies of the past do we still have to live in fear? Is Jewish history Groundhog Day? Do things never change?
To which I think one of the answers is the key word of this time of the Jewish year. Teshuvah. Repentance. I think teshuvah is one of the most remarkable ideas ever to have entered the human mind. Teshuvah tells us that history can change because we can change. Our character is not pre-programmed in our genes. We can act differently tomorrow than we did yesterday. Yesterday’s enemies can be tomorrow’s friends. It happened between Israel and Germany, Israel and Egypt, Israel and Jordan. History can change because we can change and we are the makers of history. And my deepest prayer this year is that Israel’s enemies, its neighbours change too because then we can, together, write a new chapter in the history of the Middle East, a chapter of joy not of distress.
But just think about Israel for a moment. Jews hadn’t formed an army since the days of the Bar Kochba rebellion almost 19 centuries ago, yet they did so brilliantly to defend their land. For two thousand years, rarely were Jews farmers, yet in Israel they became the world’s great agricultural innovators. Because of the vicissitudes of Jewish history no people has changed more dramatically and more often than Jews, and yet throughout it all we stayed loyal to our fundamental principles: justice, compassion, love of life, love of children, love of study, argument and the life of the mind.
U-teshuvah u-tefillah u-tzedakah ma’avirin et roa hagezerah. Penitence, prayer and charity can avert the evil decree. There is nothing inevitable in the affairs of humankind. The greatest gift God gave us was the ability to change. Jews never accept defeat. Because of that, after all the hammer-blows of history, we are still undefeated.
Yes, there have been tough times in recent months. But consider this. In almost 4,000 years of Jewish history never before have we had simultaneously independence and sovereignty in the land of Israel, freedom and equality in most countries outside. To paraphrase an old Hasidic saying: If things are so bad, how come they’re so good? This year, let us first thank God for all the good in Jewish life, then let us ask Him for the strength to change the rest.
When I was Chief Rabbi, each year before Rosh Hashanah I used to make a television film for the BBC. It was an interesting challenge. 99.5 per cent of the viewers were not Jewish. Jews are only half a per cent of the population of Britain. Besides which, many, even most of them weren’t religious believers at all. Britain is quite a secular society. So how do you explain to a non Jewish non religious audience what teshuvah is?
It occurred to me that one dramatic way of doing so was thinking about addiction. After all, to cure an addiction you have to go through most of the stages of teshuvah. You have to recognise that taking drugs is wrong: what we call charatah. You have to undertake to act differently in future: what we call shinui maaseh. And we have to be able to resist temptation when it comes our way again: what Maimonides defined as teshuvah gemurah, complete repentance.
So I spent a day at a rehabilitation centre for heroin addicts. I found it incredibly moving. Here were kids, 16 to 18 years old. Most of them came from broken homes. Some had suffered abuse when young, others simply neglect. They’d had a terrible past. Trouble was, by seeking refuge in drugs they were going to have an even more terrible future.
The people running the centre were amazing, and they were changing lives. But to me the most remarkable moment happened while I was speaking to the head of the centre, a young woman with, I remember, pink hair and punk clothes. Yet when she spoke Shechinah medaberet toch gronah, it was as if I were hearing the Divine presence.
I asked her what it was that the centre did for the young addicts that helped them change their lives. She replied: this is the first place they’ve been to that offers them unconditional love. Then she said: We are the first people they’ve met who care enough about them to say No.
When I heard those two sentences I realised that is what God does for us this time of the year. We are sin addicts. We do things we know we shouldn’t, whether it’s taking drugs, or taking liberties, or not respecting others, or blaming someone else when we should be blaming ourselves. Whatever.
We could carry on like this forever, harming others but most of all harming ourselves, were it not for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur calling us to account. That’s when, if we open our hearts, we encounter God offering us unconditional love, but caring about us enough to say, No.
It’s strange, very strange. Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the aseret yemei teshuvah, the ten days of repentance. We reflect on the past year, recall the bad we did and the good we failed to do, apologise, confess and ask for forgiveness.
Yet there’s almost none of this on Rosh Hashanah. There is no confession, no Ashamnu bagadnu, no Al chet, no reference to the past year, no looking back. One of the few references to the fact that we are embarking on a process of teshuvah is the Unetaneh Tokef prayer reminding us that today our fate is being written: who will live and who will die.
Surely the beginning of the days of repentance should begin with repentance? The answer is one of the deepest truths of Judaism. To mend the past, first you have to secure the future.
I learned this from the Holocaust survivors I came to know. They were among the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met, and I wanted to understand how they were able to survive, knowing what they knew, seeing what they saw.
What I came to realise was that many of them did not speak about those years, even to their spouses or their children, sometimes for as long as forty or fifty years. Only when they had secured the future did they allow themselves to look back at the past. Only when they had built a life did they permit themselves to remember death.
That was when I understood two strange characters in the Torah, Noah and Lot’s wife. After the Flood, it seems, Noah looked back. Overwhelmed by grief he sought refuge in wine. Before the Flood he was the only person in the whole of Tanach to be called righteous, yet he ended his days drunk and dishevelled. Two of his sons were ashamed to look at him.
Lot’s wife disobeyed the angels, turned back to look at the destruction of Sodom and was turned into a pillar of salt. I think the Holocaust survivors knew that if they turned and looked back they too would be reduced to the salt of tears.
Jews survived every tragedy because they looked forward. When Sarah died, Abraham was 137 years old. He had just lost the woman who had shared his life’s journey and who had twice saved his life. He might have been paralysed by grief. Yet this is what we read: “Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and weep for her. Then Abraham rose from beside his dead wife” (Gen. 23:2-3): a mere ten words in Hebrew.
We then read how Abraham bought the first plot of land in Israel and arranged for a wife for his son. Long before, God had promised him children and a land. By the time Sarah died he owned no land, and had one unmarried child. Instead of complaining to God that He had not fulfilled his promises, he understood that he had to take the first step. First he had to build the future. That was how he honoured the past.
And that’s what we do on Rosh Hashanah. The Torah readings are about the miraculous birth of two children, Isaac to Sarah and Samuel to Hannah, because children are our deepest investment in the future. We proclaim God’s sovereignty as if the day is a coronation, the beginning of a new era. Then, having committed ourselves to the coming year, on the intervening days and Yom Kippur we can turn and apologise for last year. Paradoxically in Judaism the future comes before the past.
This one insight could transform the world. After the Holocaust, Jews didn’t sit paralysed by grief. They built the future, above all the land and state of Israel. If other nations really cared about the future instead of trying to avenge the wrongs of the past, we would have peace in some of the world’s worst conflict zones.
And so it is with us. First we have to focus on building a better future. Then and only then we can redeem the past.
There’s an old and totally apocryphal story about the nineteenth century French Jewish aristocrat Baron de Rothschild, whose wife was in her bedroom with a nurse, in the last stages of delivery while he was sitting downstairs playing a game of cards with his friends. Suddenly they heard her cry, ‘Mon Dieu, Mon Dieu.’ ‘Baron,’ said his friends, ‘go up to your wife. She needs you.’ ‘Not yet.’ said the baron and continued playing cards. Five minutes later they heard a cry, ‘My God, My God.’ ‘Go up,’ said the Baron’s friends. ‘Not yet,’ said the Baron and returned to his cards. Finally they heard his wife cry, ‘Gevalt.’ The Baron immediately rose and ran upstairs, saying, ‘Now is the time.’
The story is, of course, about how Jews in the nineteenth century had to hide their identities and become more French than the French, more English than the English, and yet remained Jewish in their hearts. The Jewish mind spoke French but the Jewish soul still spoke Yiddish.
But there’s another and simpler message, which is that when we cry from the heart, someone listens. That’s the message of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
We are a hyper-verbal people. We talk, we argue, we pontificate, we deliver witty repartee and clever put downs. Jews may not always be great listeners but we are among the world’s great talkers. Accuse us of anything and we’ll come up with a dozen reasons why we’re right and you are wrong.
But there comes a moment when we summon the courage to be honest with ourselves. And if we really are honest with ourselves, then we know in our heart that we’re not perfect, we don’t always get it right, not as individuals and not as a people.
That’s the moment when all we can say is gevalt. All we can do is cry out. That’s what the shofar is. The sound of our tears. Shevarim, three sighs. Teruah, a series of sobs. And surrounding them the tekiah, the call without words. The sound of a heart breaking. No more excuses. No more rationalisations and justifications. Ribbono shel olam, forgive us.
The truth is, these are the most important moments in life. We can carry on for years deceiving ourselves, blaming others for what goes wrong. We are our own infallible counsel for the defence. But there has to be a time when we allow ourselves simply to weep for the things we know we could have handled better. That is what the shofar is: the cry that starts when words end.
That’s when God reaches out to us, as parent to child, and holds us close while we weep together, then He comforts us and gives us the strength to begin again. There’s nothing closer to God than a broken heart and nothing stronger than a heart that’s been healed by God’s forgiveness.
I don’t know whether you ever noticed, but teshuvah, the whole cycle of repentance and forgiveness, plays no part in the early dramas of humankind. It doesn’t in the story of Adam and Eve. As for Cain, God mitigates his punishment but He doesn’t forgive him for his crime. There is no call to repentance to the generation of the Flood, or the builders of Babel, or the people of Sodom and the cities of the plain.
The first time God forgives is after the sin of the Golden Calf. He hears Moses’ prayer and agrees. “Although this is a stiff-necked people,” he said, “forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance.” And God did. Moses pleaded again after the sin of the spies: “Forgive the sin of these people, just as You have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now.” And God replied, “I have forgiven them, as you asked.”
Why the change? Why does God forgive in the book of Exodus but not in the book of Genesis? The answer, I think, is extraordinary and it made a huge difference to me when I realised it.
The first recorded instance of forgiveness in all of literature is the moment when Joseph, by then Viceroy of Egypt, revealed his identity to his brothers, who had long before sold him as a slave. He forgives them. He says, it wasn’t you, it was God. He said: “Don’t be distressed or angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” And it wasn’t only then that Joseph forgave them. After their father Jacob had died, the brothers were anxious that now Joseph would take revenge. Once again Joseph forgave. And on that note the book of Genesis ends.
God did not forgive human beings until human beings learned to forgive. It took Joseph to bring forgiveness into the world. That is what God was waiting for. Had God forgiven first, He would have made the human situation worse, not better. People would have said, ‘Why shouldn’t I harm others? After all, God forgives.’ We have to forgive others before God can forgive us.
So, before Yom Kippur, take time to apologise to others you may have offended. Forgive others who have offended you. Resentment is a heavy load to bear. Let go of it and you will travel more lightly. Now is the time to heal the wounds of the past. Then you will have more energy for the future.
Professor Reuven Feuerstein who died aged 92 in April 2014 was one of the great child psychologists of the world, a man who transformed lives and led severely brain-damaged children to achievements no one else thought possible. I knew him and admired him, and I was recording a tribute to him when his son told me a wonderful story.
Feuerstein had been working with a group of Native American Indians and they wanted to show their gratitude. So they invited him and his wife to their reservation. They were brought into the Indian chief’s wigwam where the leaders of the tribe were sitting in a circle in full headdress.
As the traditional welcome ceremony began, the professor, an orthodox Jew from Jerusalem, was overwhelmed by the incongruity. He turned to his wife and said to her in Yiddish, “What would my mother say if she could see me now?!” To his amazement, the Indian chief turned to him and replied in Yiddish: “And what would she say if she knew I understood what you just said!”
The Yiddish-speaking Indian chief told Feuerstein his story. He had grown up in Europe as a religious Jew, but having survived the horrors of the Holocaust, he decided that he wanted to spend the rest of his life as far away as he could from Western civilisation, so he joined the Indians and became their doctor. Feuerstein was the first Jew he had met in his self-imposed exile.
There are certain people around whom strange things happen and Reuven Feuerstein was one. Born in Romania, he studied psychology in Bucharest, but was forced to flee by the Nazi invasion. He settled in Israel after the war, and began by treating traumatised child survivors of the holocaust. Returning to Europe he completed his education at Geneva and the Sorbonne. Later he returned to Israel where he established the Institute for the Enhancement of Learning Potential.
He dedicated his life to children with disadvantages, some physical – autistic, brain-damaged and Down Syndrome children – and others cultural or social. His methods have been adopted in more than 80 countries. He was a genius, a magician, a small, slight man with twinkling eyes. Children opened up to him like flowers in the sun.
I tell his story because he was a deeply spiritual Jew. His methods were elaborate and his theories complex, but seeing him at work you knew that there were three reasons he achieved miracles. First, the basis of his work was love. He loved the children and they loved him. Second, he had transformative faith. Under him children developed skills no one thought they could because he believed they could. He had more faith in them than anyone else.
Third, he refused to write anyone off. He insisted that children with disabilities should be included in society like every other child. They too were in the image of God. They too had a right to respect. They too could lead a full and meaningful life.
I learned from Professor Feuerstein that faith really does change lives. The one thing that can rescue us from despair and failure to fulfil our potential is the knowledge that someone believes in us more than we believe in ourselves.
That is what God does. He believes in us more than we believe in ourselves. However many times we fail, He forgives us. However many times we fall, He lifts us. And He never gives up. As we say in Le-David Hashem ori ve-yishi: “My father and mother might abandon me but God will gather me in.” (Psalm 27:10).
At the heart of Judaism is one utterly transformative belief: our faith in God’s faith in us. That, as Reuven Feuerstein, showed can lead us to a greatness we never knew we had.