Questions Answered - Episode Three

The “Ask Rabbi Sacks” project

We invited the world to send in their burning questions in time for Rosh Hashanah 2016.
Then we filmed Rabbi Sacks’ answers.


In this third episode, Rabbi Sacks answers the following questions:

  • Why is the religious experience of saying ‘Hashem hu haElokim” at the end of Yom Kippur an audible one, as opposed to visual one?
  • Why don’t all the Jews in the world live in Israel?
  • How do Teshuvah, Tzedakah and Tefillah remove the evil decree?
  • If we only follow the commandments that we understand, if we pick and choose, does that mean we are excluding God from our Judaism?
  • How can Jews with different opinions to come together as one people?

Adam Lang:

Hello, Rabbi Lord Sacks. I’m Adam from Barnet. I really liked your explanation of [how] after the episode of Mount Carmel, when Hashem speaks to Eliyahu, and shows him the great wind, and the earthquake and the fire, and says that God isn’t there, instead God is in the “small, still voice”. My question is, why do we all together seven times say at the end of Yom Kippur, “Hashem hu ha’Elokim” which was said at Mount Carmel, where the revelation of Hashem was entirely visible and physical, while on Yom Kippur, the religious experience is made to be much more audible.

Rabbi Sacks:

Adam from London, thank you for your lovely question. A really serious question. Why is it that at the very combination of Neilah, we shout “Hashem hu ha’Elokim” seven times, which is of course what the people shouted out after the Prophet Elijah had had that confrontation with the 400 prophets of Baal, and they’d done this kind of almost scientific experiment that it is the one who sends fire to consume the offering is the real God. As you know, the prophets of Baal tried, and nothing happened, and they tried a bit harder and Elijah even teased them, “Shout a bit louder, maybe your God’s having a little schluf.” And then eventually they lacerate themselves… The whole thing is pretty spectacular, as you say. And then Elijah makes this brief prayer to God, and God says sends fire. So it was a very visual thing. You know that I’ve always argued that Judaism is more than a religion of listening than of seeing, and you’ll rightly saying that this was a moment when the seeing was everything.

I think, though, that the reason we say this seven times at the end of Neilah has nothing to do with anything visual and has nothing to do with the precise details of what happened at Mount Carmel. It’s just that this is a supreme example of a prayer that was answered. Elijah said to God, “Send the fire,” and God sent fire.

We know that many prayers are answered, but it takes years and years and years. Think of how much Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were looking forward to having the Land of Israel. It still took them generations. Many prayers don’t get answered very spectacularly. Moses prayed to God, well, he kind of put God on the spot, and said, “Let the earth open up and swallow my opponents,” when Korach had the rebellion. But I don’t think we want to take that as a precedent because we don’t want God to answer bad prayers or prayers that harm people. Moses prayed to God, “Please heal Miriam from leprosy,” but she was still leprous for another seven days.

So this is a supreme example of somebody issuing a prayer, that prayer being answered, and the people shouting out, “Hashem hu ha’Elokim”. So it’s not the visual thing. It’s just that is the supreme example of making a prayer and of having it answered. And since we’ve spent the whole day in shul making our prayers, we culminate with this kind of meta prayer, “Please God, answer us the way you answered Elijah at Mount Carmel.” I hope that explains it. Shanah Tovah.


Yair Chalef:

My name is Yair Chalef and I’m a student of Bnei Akiva in Ra’anana, Israel. And my question, is how come after the pogroms and eventually the Holocaust, there are still so many Jews even outside of Israel. Why aren’t they all coming to the State of Israel?

Rabbi Sacks:

Hi, Yair from Ra’anana. You’ve got a good question. Why aren’t all Jews living today in Israel? Well, first of all, let us at least acknowledge the extraordinary fact that after 2,000 years we have a Medinat Yisrael, that today more Jews live in Israel than any other country on Earth, which wasn’t true 20 or 30 years ago. And so what the Prophets foresaw is happening. Slowly and surely, Jews are returning, shivat tzion. Do not forget that on the first journey to Israel, by Avraham Avinu, no sooner had he arrived, then he had to leave because there was a famine in the land, and then there was another feminine the land. And don’t forget in the days of Moshe Rabbeinu, a journey that should have taken only a few days took 40 years. Nothing in Jewish history, in fact, nothing in any history, happens immediately like that.

The miracles of Medinat Yisrael continue to astound and inspire us. Jews continue to make aliyah, and that aliyah will continue, b’ezrat Hashem, for many years and many decades to come.

In the meanwhile, as Maimonides told us in The Guide for the Perplexed, God doesn’t do things in human affairs all of a sudden. It takes time.

So, having been patient for 2,000 years to witness the return of Jews to Zion, be patient for a few more, and then we’ll all come and join you in Medinat Yisrael, bimheirah b’yameinu. In the meantime, let me wish you a Shanah Tovah


Mike Young:

My name is Mike Young. I live in Ma’alot, in the north of Israel, and as I have grown older, I’ve had more and more doubts about my religious convictions, and when I see all the evil around, surrounding us. My question is this: On Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, we shout out U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah, ma’avirin et roah hagzeirah. How do we know this is correct? Can you convince me?

Rabbi Sacks:

Mike from Ma’alot, good to be on the receiving end of your question, which is a tough question. And just to remind us, how do we know the truth of that affirmation that we say in Unetaneh Tokef, U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah, ma’avirin et roah hagzeirah?

Mike, I think we’ve kind of mistranslated that sentence for a very, very long time, because it doesn’t say ma’avirin et hagzeirah hara’ah. We don’t say, “Repentance, prayer, and charity, remove the evil decree.” We say et roah hagzeirah., that it removes the evil of the decree. In other words, even if we’ve done teshuvah, even if we’ve prayed, and even if we given tzedakah, things may still happen to us that we would rather didn’t happen to us. But by praying and by repenting and by giving to charity, somehow we gather the strength to turn the bad things into good things. Let me give you an example.

I remember the first job I ever applied for. Yeah, didn’t get it. I was going to be a philosophy lecturer, and I didn’t get. It was a university in Stirling, in Scotland, and it really rankled, you know what I mean? You apply for your first job and you don’t get it. That’s an evil decree, right? But as I thought back 20, 30 years later, if I’d have got that job, I would never have become a Rabbi, a teacher of Rabbis, a Chief Rabbi, and all the many blessings that flowed from it. It’s when you look back and you see that sometimes the bad things that happened to you were the most important things in your life and made possible all sorts of good things.

Now, how does that happen? When you continually do teshuvah, you say to God, “If I’ve done wrong, forgive me, but at least I acknowledged I did wrong.” So you become a learning human being.

Tefillah means you look up, and somehow or other that encounter with the Divine Presence gives you the strength to carry on, even through the bad things.

And tzedakah means that other people’s unhappiness matters to you, not just your own unhappiness. And do you know what? The more you give, the less you bother yourself about your own unhappiness, because you’ve been a cause of happiness in others.

So that is how penitence, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree. They don’t mean that bad things won’t happen, but somehow or other, you will be able to turn those bad things into good things, and look back years later and say, “You know, what I thought was a bad thing at the time, turned out in retrospect to have been a great blessing or a great source of blessings later in my life.” Hope that answers you. It’s the best I can do, but I think it’s a real answer. It’s not the evil decree, but the evil of the decree. Anyway, to you and everyone else in Ma’alot, A Shanah Tovah Umetukah, a good and sweet new year.


Jared:

Hello, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I’m Jared Gilboa, this is Adam Silvan and Sam Maisner. We are from Carmel School in Perth, Australia, and we’re wishing you a Shanah Tovah, and a happy new year, and may this year ahead be a sweet and a fruitful year. And this is our question.

Sam Mazener:

Okay, Rabbi. So our question is, if we were to only follow commandments that give us meaning and that we see the purpose in, that we pick and choose from what God gave us, does that mean that we are excluding God from our Judaism?

Rabbi Sacks:

Hi there, Jared, Adam, and Sam in Perth, Australia, which is the most beautiful city imaginable and of course a lovely Jewish community. And it’s a long way from anywhere else actually, but I love the city and I love the Jewish community. So it’s great to hear from you. And Sam, you have a good question. If you keep a command because you understand the reason, are you sort of putting our needs first and not really thinking about God?

Well, the truth is, I think trying to understand the reasons for the commands is actually trying to understand what God wants from us. For instance, take a simple command, not eating meat and milk together. Now, there are deep symbolic reasons for this, but I want to mention another reason, which has only just come to light.

There’s a fascinating social scientist called Walter Mischel, who coined, as you know, you probably heard about this, it’s called the marshmallow test. Fifty years ago, he devised this test for four-year-old kids. You put a four-year-old kid in a room and there was a marshmallow on the table. And he said to the kid, “I’m just going off for 20 minutes. You can either eat the marshmallow now, or if you wait for 20 minutes and you don’t eat it, you can have two marshmallows.” And it was just fascinating. Without the kids knowing this, they were being filmed, and it’s fascinating watching these four-year-old children wrestling with the issue of self-control. Now, it turns out that what makes this test so fascinating is that the kids’ score on this ability of self-control predicted pretty much the rest of their lives. The kids who were able to wait for 20 minutes to control themselves and who got the extra marshmallow, did better at school, better at university, better in their careers. So it turns out that self-control from a very early age is a very powerful thing.

Now, if you can’t eat milk for six hours or three hours or whatever you keep after eating meat, you are, from a very young age, learning a habit of self-control. Now, doing that and understanding that is one of the reasons behind the dietary laws, (by no means the only one, but one of them), are you excluding God from your calculations? No, you’re actually trying to fathom the will of God. God wants us to exercise self control, because human beings do very bad things indeed when they lack self control. So Maimonides’ view, (and I’m giving you Maimonides’ view), is that the more you understand the reasons for the commands, the more you will do them and benefit from them because you will see how they’re changing you in ways that God wants you to change.

So there’s nothing secularising or marginalising God about doing commands for the reasons we understand. The only thing that’s terribly dangerous is not to keep the commands we don’t understand. Because believe you me, there are, in any given age, certain commands that just don’t seem to make sense in terms of the values of the age, but they turn out one age later to be very important indeed. Like whoever heard of environmentalism before 1947 when Rachel Carson did Silent Spring? Nobody ever heard of this before. But all of a sudden you begin to realise how many of the commands in the Torah, like leaving fields fallow one year in seven and so on, are there to protect the environment. Don’t take the mother bird and its child together. Don’t take an animal and its young in one day, because that threatens the entire continuity of the species. And do you know how many species became extinct because human beings didn’t exercise that self-control?

Now, people didn’t understand this. And the end result was pretty vast tracks of ground like African deserts became deserts because people over-farmed the land. So there is a reason for all the commands. Not all of it is clear to us at any given moment. But don’t think that doing them for a reason is in any way in conflict with doing them because God said so. God said so for that very reason, that we should understand the inner logic of the commands. Hope that helps. And in the meantime, Shanah Tovah.


Rodrigo Varscher:

Rabbi Sacks, this is Rodrigo from Uruguay, South America. I’m a translation student, about to graduate as such. You were here three years ago, giving a number of lectures on Jewish leadership and continuity, which I had the privilege to be there and listen to you. But my question to you as we approach Yamim Noraim, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, is about Jewish identity, but particularly Jewish unity. How do you think we can transcend our ideological differences, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or even secular, and work together as am echad, as one people indeed, no matter how we personally live our Jewish lives and practice?

Rabbi Sacks:

Rodrigo from Uruguay, thank you for your terrific question, which is in essence, how do we transcend our differences and our divisions? Rodrigo, there is a simple answer to this. You see, Hashem, in choosing Am Yisrael, the Jewish people, and in making a covenant with us, really has two ways of relating to us. The late Rabbi Soloveitchik called it the brit goral and the brit ye’ud the covenant of fate and the covenant of faith. And that becomes terribly important because it means that we’re not only a religious community with all the divisions that exist within us on religious matters. We’re also a people, or to put it more simply, a single extended family. And we are joined by bonds of responsibility, kol yisrael ereivim zeh bazeh. And whenever, God forbid, bad things happen to Jews, all Jews feel the pain. When good things happen to Jews, all Jews feel the sense of pride and the sense of joy. So even when we are divided on matters of faith, we are still united on matters of fate. And that means that we have to work together on the matters on which we don’t disagree.

So when I was Chief Rabbi, I established two principles that really worked, and they are these. Number one, on all matters that affect us as Jews, regardless of our religious differences, we work together regardless of our religious differences. And number two, on all matters that touch on those differences, we will agree to differ, but with respect. That means we can work together in defending Israel, fighting antisemitism, working for good relations with other faiths, on matters of welfare, charity, and all the rest. And that is how we transcend those divisions.

So I hope it should be, at least in many parts of Jewish life, a year of unity and of peace among Jews. And may I wish you, and all the Jewish community in Uruguay, Shanah Tovah, a good and peaceful new year.