How Forgiveness Can Change the World
Midnight Selichot 5773
It’s an immense privilege and pleasure to begin tonight’s service by inviting the Chief Rabbi to address us.
K’vod Shagrir Medinat Yisrael, Ambassador Daniel Taub, Mara D’atra Rabbi Michael Harris, Rabbanim Mechubadim, other distinguished Rabbis, distinguished and wonderful friends. This is indeed my last day as Chief Rabbi. I was going to turn into a pumpkin at midnight, but we might delay that by five minutes. And for me it is a very emotional moment. I know these are secular dates, but nonetheless, it is for me, quite emotional that on Friday night, the 1st of September 1978, I began as Rabbi in my first Shul in Golders Green. Thirteen years later to the day, on the 1st of September 1991, I became Chief Rabbi and tomorrow on the 1st of September, I induct my successor. So, I want to say how very beautiful it is and how moving that we are completing this chapter in our lives, Elaine and mine, with you, in this way, for three reasons.
Number one, my Chief Rabbinate ends as it began, to the music of Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld and the Shabbaton Choir. They have been the background music to our Chief Rabbinate throughout. We’ve travelled around Anglo-Jewry together. We’ve travelled ten times to Israel together. We’ve even sung Jewish music together in Windsor Castle, and Lambeth Palace. The number of Archbishops who were revolving in their graves, I hate to think of.
And together you have made not just Jews, but Judaism sing. I want to thank all of you – members of the choir, Stephen Levey, its Conductor and composer of some of its most beautiful melodies, Jonny Turgel, Matan Portnoy, our boy soloist, and all of you, but above all, Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld, who single-handedly really, just brought back choral Selichot to Anglo-Jewry, who has been such a friend and a soulmate to me personally over the years. Thank you, Lionel, for everything. And thank you all, the members of the choir for making us sing.
Secondly, the theme of my induction address 22 years ago was Jewish renewal, chadesh yameinu k’kedem and you can have no finer example of this than the Hampstead Synagogue, so lovingly and beautifully restored to its former glory.
Now I know everyone here is nostalgic for those wonderful, sludge-green walls and peeling plaster, but I have to say it is looking quite wonderful today and its renewal owes so much to your remarkable community, your great lay-leaders and forgive me for singling out Michael Haringman, who has driven it so much, but all of your lay leaders and above all to your absolutely terrific Rabbi, Rabbi Dr. Michael Harris, who has been such a cherished colleague, beloved friend, and a real soulmate. May Hashem continue to bless you and your wonderful family in the year and the years ahead.
And finally, how beautiful it is that this last great occasion is a United Synagogue event, bringing together people of many great communities. It has been a true privilege to work for the United Synagogue and all its lay leaders and all its members, but in particular, it is so moving to me that tonight four of the six people I had the privilege of serving under as President, are here. We miss the late Sidney Frosh, of blessed memory, and lehavdil bein chayim lechayim Elkan Levy, but here tonight is Seymour Saideman, Peter Sheldon, Dr. Simon Hochhauser. What, what?
Elkan’s here!! Well you came. Elkan! Welcome. Bless you. We had fun together didn’t we Elkan? I think we managed to upset every single person in Anglo-Jewry together and it was great fun, and to all of you, to Steve Pack, I want to say thank you. The United Synagogue is unique in the Jewish world. It has a message we so badly need throughout the Jewish world. And I thank every one of you, all the members, every one of you, all the visitors, for the privilege of your friendship over these years.
Needless to say, Elaine and I will experience Rosh Hashanah this year with unusual intensity because we’re beginning not just a New Year but a new home, a new challenge, and a new life. Where it will lead us, I don’t know, but I did get a shock this week by a news item in Google News. And you will see this is true if you just Google “Jonathan Sacks” in Google News. It reads as follows “Jonathan Sacks: Youth Minister”. I thought “Okay, having climbed to the top of the ladder, you’re making me begin again at the bottom”. Then I read the small print and the story is as follows, that Nigeria has a President who goes with a beautiful name of “Goodluck Jonathan”. He was disappointed with the performance of a member of his cabinet, the minister responsible for youth. He decided to dismiss him. And so the headline read “Jonathan Sacks Youth Minister”. From which I conclude, never judge anyone or anything by newspaper headlines.
Friends, whatever the New Year brings, may it bring you, your families and the Jewish people shenat bracha vehatzlachah, a year of blessing and success. And may each of us have a ketiva vechatima tova, a good and healthy and happy New Year, for us and Jews throughout the world. Amen.
Friends, let me share with you the experience of these last few days. This past week has been traumatic for Elaine and myself in many ways. We discovered, as you all know, that moving home is traumatic. It is physically and emotionally demanding. Not least if you happen to have, as I do, some over 15,000 books (I mean, that’s why Kindle was invented as you know, for Chief Rabbis, but what do you do on Shabbat? So, you still need the books) But in 22 years, courtesy of the United Synagogue, Elaine and I have lived in a home, Hamilton Terrace, that is so big that you never have to throw anything away.
So what happens when you move to being a normal human being again, and you go through this very traumatic experience? And I want to explain to you that this experience has finally allowed me to complete a journey of understanding into the meaning of Yamim Nora’im and the Asseret Yemai Teshuvah and Selichotitself, a journey that I began two years ago when I wrote the Yom Kippur Machzor. And I want to share this journey of discovery with you. It’s a long journey, but bear with me.
Why do we say Selichot? The answer is because after the Israelites made the Golden Calf, Moshe Rabbeinu prayed to God to forgive them and, Moshe Rabbeinu used the word for the first time in recorded Jewish history of “selichah”. He said, vesalachta la’avoneinu ulechattateinu u’nechaltanu, forgive us our sin and our affliction and stay with us. [Shemot 34:9] This is the first time the verb selichah appears in the Torah, the first call for forgiveness in Jewish history and God forgave the Jewish people. And the sign of that forgiveness was the second set of Tablets, which Moshe Rabbeinu brought down Mount Sinai on the 10th of Tishrei. And ever since that day, the anniversary of that day has been Yom Kippur, the great Day of Forgiveness and Selichot, a part of our journey towards that day, two weeks from now.
Therefore, I asked a very simple question. This is the first instance of Selichot, of Divine forgiveness and it appears in the middle of the book of Shemot, the second book of the Torah. After the sin of the Golden Calf. Why is there no forgiveness, no thought, no mention of forgiveness in the whole of Sefer Bereishit, the whole of the first book of the Torah.
Why does forgiveness, or the call for forgiveness, not figure in the story of the Flood or the Tower of Babel or the citizens of Sodom and the cities of the plague? You might say, because there was no Moshe Rabbeinu to pray for forgiveness. So the question simply repeats itself. Why didn’t God send them a Moshe Rabbeinu? The way He sent Jonah to the inhabitants of Nineveh to get them to do teshuvah and achieve forgiveness? Why didn’t He tell Abraham, why didn’t He tell Noah to pray for them? Why is there no selichah, no mechilah, no kapparah, in Bereishit? It is there in Shemot, in Vayikra, Bamidbar, but not in Bereishit. And I asked myself, why?
And here, I believe, is the answer. If you read the book of Bereishit, you will see that it is a book about sibling rivalry, about the conflict between brothers. And there are four such stories in Bereishit – Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. In each case there is conflict, and in each case, some form of tragedy. And if you merely read those stories in a superficial way, you might say Bereishit presents a tragic view of the human condition. But actually Bereishit contains a hidden message. And to decode that message, all you have to do is to forget everything else and focus on the last scene in each of those relationships, the last time we see two brothers together.
What is the last scene in which Cain and Abel are together? Cain is a murderer and Abel lies dead.
In the last scene between Isaac and Ishmael, they are standing together, united in grief at Abraham’s grave.
In the last scene between Jacob and Esau, they kiss, they embrace, and then they go their separate ways.
In the last scene between Joseph and his brothers, Joseph forgives them and there is reconciliation.
This is a story of hope, not of tragedy.
Twice, Joseph forgives his brothers. First when he reveals his identity and then again, after his father’s death, and he forgives them in the most majestic words, “atem chashavtem alai ra’ah, you planned evil against me, but Elokim chashavah letovah, God turned it to good.” He forgives them. [Bereishit 50:20]
And when I realised this, I realised why Divine forgiveness does not appear until Bereishit ends and Shemot begins, to teach us that God does not forgive human beings until human beings learn to forgive one another. The second Joseph forgives his brothers and Genesis ends, then the story of Divine forgiveness can begin. But if God were to forgive us while we refuse to forgive one another, it would only perpetuate rivalry between siblings and conflict between nations. Not until human forgiveness enters the world as it did with Joseph, did Divine forgiveness enter the world. Forgiveness is as fundamental an element of human freedom as was the Exodus from slavery in Egypt.
With Geulah, with redemption from Egypt, our ancestors were freed from physical slavery. With selichah, with forgiveness, our ancestors were freed from spiritual slavery because if there were no forgiveness, we would always be slaves to the past. We would never be able to wipe the slate clean. Every sin we committed would be an indelible state. We would be imprisoned in our past. Because there is forgiveness, the slate can be wiped clean. We can begin again. We can write a new and different story in our lives.
Friends in 1999, I flew in an RAF plane to Pristina to see the end of the conflict and the NATO operation in Kosovo, to make my Rosh Hashanah programme for the BBC.
The refugees in their hundreds of thousands were returning home, but there was tension everywhere. There were tanks everywhere. There were murders every day and night. Why? Why did the whole conflict in Kosovo begin? Because toxic leaders stirred up ancient hatreds between the Orthodox Christian Serbs and the Muslim Kosovan Albanians. And that tension had been dormant, but it went right back to the battle of Kosovo in 1389, 610 years earlier.
And when leaders want to stir up hatred by referring to the past, it is astonishing how easy it is to do so. And I stood there in the main square of Pristina surrounded by rubble and bombed buildings. And I said to the camera that “Now, for the first time in my life, have I understood the power of one word to change the world, the word forgiveness. If the two sides, the Serbs and the Albanians can forgive one another, then they have a future. If they cannot, they will be replaying the battle of Kosovo of 1389 to the end of time.”
Without forgiveness, we are captives of our past. With it, we are free.
Friends, the man who has been the role model for forgiveness in the modern world has been Nelson Mandela, a hero who forgave his captors and thereby allowed South Africa to reach the end of apartheid without a devastating and murderous civil war.
Now, there were many Jews who were very close to Nelson Mandela, and they played a very important part in that process of reconciliation and forgiveness. One of those individuals was my namesake, sadly, no relative (although a fellow Litvak), but his name is Albie Sachs. You may have heard of him. He was the great lawyer who defended people charged under the racial and security acts of the apartheid regime. One of the leading lawyers who fought against apartheid.
For his actions, he was arrested by the South African government and placed in solitary confinement for five months. Eventually he went into exile in Mozambique, but even there he was pursued by the South African secret police who placed a bomb in his car, and he just managed to survive, but he lost an arm. It had to be amputated. Elaine and I met Albie Sachs a couple of years ago in the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg in which he is one of the Senior Judges.
And while we were there, an English lady Judge took me aside and said,” I’m going to tell you a story about Albie Sachs that he will never tell about himself. This man played such a part in keeping ANC on the path of reconciliation while Nelson Mandela was still in prison. There was a time when the ANC leadership was getting very angry and they wanted to wage a campaign of violence and it fell to Albie Sachs to talk them out of it. And he addressed this angry crowd and as his speech rose to a crescendo, he flung out his arm in a dramatic gesture, the arm he no longer had. And then he turned to them and he said, ‘If I can forgive them, so can you’, and that turned it around”.
And that is how forgiveness can change the world.
Friends, that is the forgiveness to which you and I are summoned tonight because God can only forgive us if we forgive one another, and not until Joseph forgave his brothers did God even forgive human beings. That is a principle of Judaism. The Gemarah in Rosh Hashanah says Kol hamoser din al chaveiro hu ne’enash techilah. Whoever asked God to condemn someone else is condemned himself. Whoever asks God to punish someone else is punished. Only those who forgive are forgiven, and only those who forgive are free from being prisoners of their past.
Friends, I said Elaine and I were moving home and we discovered what everyone discovers, that in life you accumulate a lot of stuff. And that is fine so long as you stay put. But it is not great at all if you want to move. And that is when you have to look very carefully at everything you have, and whatever is unnecessary, you have to let go, you have to give away, you have to renounce.
Otherwise you will never be able to move. And that is what forgiveness is. That’s what Selichot is about. That’s what the Asseret Yemei Teshuvah are about. That’s what Yom Kippur is about. We have to let go of all the rubbish we accumulate; all the pain, all the anger, all the bitterness, all the resentment that we feel for other people, because we felt, or we feel, that they let us down, that they humiliated us. That they betrayed us. And believe me, I know how hard it is to let go of those feelings. We feel hurt and we cling to that hurt, but we have to let go. We have to give it away, or we will never be able to move. And that is what Judaism is about.
Judaism is not about standing still. It’s about moving.
Jewish history begins when God says to Abraham, Lech Lecha – move. Move! Leave your home, begin a journey. And it culminates in the sedra we read this morning, Vayelech. Moshe Rabbeinu 120 years old and still move. The very word for Jewish law is halachah, the same word, a journey.
To be a Jew is to travel. And if you are going to move, you have to let go. To travel spiritually, morally, psychologically, you have to let go. And that means you have to forgive. And yes, it is very, very hard, but if the world lacks forgiveness, if nations and religions and sects and tribes refuse to forgive one another, then we will get a world that we are witnessing right now in Egypt, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Somalia, in Sudan, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and too much of this unforgiving world. And the world needs to learn to forgive. And if we as individuals don’t forgive one another then we will waste our lives replaying our past instead of living our lives, building a future.
Friends, my last word to you as Chief Rabbi is forgive. Live, give and forgive. That is what God is calling on us to do. Do that and we will grow. Do that and we will move. May we forgive others, and may God forgive us, so that together we may be written in the Book of Life.