Rabbi Sacks speaks at PiXL
On 28th June 2017, Rabbi Sacks delivered the keynote address at the PiXL Conference. PiXL (Partners in Excellence) is a network of over 3,000 schools across primary, secondary, sixth forms and alternative provisions in England, Northern Ireland and Wales.
Thank you, Will, for those words. And I just wanted to add to all of our feelings, how sad we are that Sir John is not with us today, but we wish him a speedy recovery. We thank him for his inspiration and for his leadership, and his presence is very much with us.
What Will didn’t tell you was the story of the last time I spoke here, which was – about a year ago, was it? – when I won something called the Templeton Prize, which comes with an occasion where there’s a gathering like this. I had to make a speech, and I worked on it for months and I thought it was really good. Well, the great day came, I received the prize, I made the speech (which passed about three miles above everyone’s head), and then to my complete amazement, because neither Elaine, my wife, nor myself were expecting this, our youngest daughter Gila got up and made a speech, which absolutely stole the show. So I had to put up with about 500 people saying to me afterwards, “Yeah, your speech was okay, but Gila’s, that was terrific.” And I suddenly realised the real truth about being a parent or being a teacher: The real challenge is not to inspire our kids, it’s to give our kids the space and the power to inspire us. And that is what happened that night.
And that, I’m sure, is going to happen in your schools, by your generosity and your vision at PiXL, and your empowerment of young people to go and become the kind of people they could and should be. I always feel that good leaders create followers, but great leaders create leaders. And you are going to be creating the leaders of tomorrow. So thank you for all you’re doing and every congratulation, and you’re our heroes.
Now, if any one of you was unfortunate enough to hear Thought For The Day this morning, you will know that – this is my favourite exercise in sadism. People bounce out of bed and face a new day, and there’s a Rabbi on the radio, giving them a sermon. This is the most sadistic thing imaginable. But [on the broadcast this morning] – I happened to mention that I’ve just come back from the trip of a lifetime. My wife and I had the chance of going on a trip to the Galapagos Islands and to Machu Picchu for three weeks – and when we were out of the country, the whole country went mad. It was a really good time to be out of the country. And I just want to share with you a couple of experiences that I had there, because I think they’re relevant to the theme.
Number one, to go to Machu Picchu, the almost perfectly-preserved ruins of an Inca citadel, of a civilisation briefly great, but then one that simply disappeared. And this reminded me of one of the life-changing experiences I ever had. It was years and years ago, I was watching a thing called the Discovery Channel. You know this? And they were doing a documentary on the temples of the great Pharaoh of ancient Egypt, Rameses II, who built temples in Karnak, Luxor, and Abu Simbel, and they’re still there over 3000 years later.
The presenter of this programme was speaking with breathless enthusiasm about these incredible buildings. And for 20 minutes, I was carried away with his enthusiasm. And then I suddenly stopped, and I thought, “Hang on, who actually built those temples?” I thought, “That was the ancient Israelites. That was my ancestors who built the temples. The people that the Egyptians called the Habiru, or the Hebrews, or our ancestors.” And then I thought, what would it be like to travel back in time and say, “Rameses, oh mighty Rameses, I am a visitor from 33 centuries in the future, and I’ve got good news for you and bad news. And the good news is that there is one civilisation that is alive in your time and still will be 33 centuries from now.” And he says, “And what’s the bad news?” And you say, “It’s not going to be yours.” And he says, “Who then?” And then you say to him, “You see those slaves labouring in the distance? They’re going to still be around, and still be believing in what they believed in.”
And I thought to myself, “How could this be?” At the time of Moses and the Israelites in the book of Exodus, the Egypt of the Pharaohs was already 18 centuries old, the longest lived and greatest of all the empires of the ancient world. Rameses II, the son of the sun god, divinity incarnate, who has absolutely bestrode the narrow world like a Colossus. And there on the other hand where the Israelites, powerless, slaves, right-less, land-less, homeless.
What made the difference? And I suddenly realised that ancient Egypt and ancient Israel, the source of our Judeo-Christian and humanist values in the West, asked themselves the most fundamental question that any of us can ask. In this all too brief, finite span of years, how can we do something that will live on after us? And they gave very different answers. Ancient Egypt said, like many other civilisations: We’ve become immortal by building monuments of stone that will outlast the winds and sands of time. And the Israelites said: No, you don’t need to build monuments of stone to be immortal. All you need to do is engrave your values on the minds of your children and they on theirs across the generations.
And that’s what made the difference. The Mesopotamians built ziggurats, the Egyptians built pyramids, the Greeks built the Parthenon, and the Romans built the Colosseum, Jews built schools, and we became the people.
And every one of you shares that faith, I think, whose citadels were schools, whose heroes were teachers, and whose passion is education and the life of the mind. That is how we achieve greatness, by handing our values on to the next generation and empowering that generation to go and build the future. And that is what you represent. And that is why salute you.
That was the first thing that came to mind when we were in these Peruvian ruins up in the mountain. But then we were in the Galapagos Islands where Charles Darwin travelled in the Beagle, and first had those thoughts that led to his great theory of natural selection. And here is where I want to talk about your theme, one of the themes of this conference, of “Them and Us”. And I just want to share with you the problem that obsessed Darwin, because it seemed to make a nonsense of his theory.
And my best way into it, the way I chose in the book, Not in God’s Name, was that moment. Have you seen the film, The Imitation Game, with Benedict Cumberbatch and that comely mathematician called Keira Knightley? You remember? And Cumberbatch is just too straight to really inspire his [team]… So she says to him, “Make a joke.” And Benedict Cumberbatch, playing Alan Turing, the great mathematician, tells a joke, and says, “There are two men in the jungle, they hear the roar of a lion. One of them starts searching for a place for both of them to hide. The other one starts putting on his running shoes. The first says to the second, ‘What are you putting on your running shoes for? You can’t run faster than a lion.’ And the second one says, ‘I don’t need to run faster than the lion. All I need to do is run faster than you.'”
Now, this is the Darwinian problem. Because Darwin realised that the first, who was trying to save both of them, was an altruist. Whereas, the second who just was putting on his running shoes was bent on survival. Now, who gets eaten by the lion? Answer: the altruist, not the survivalist. In which case, our genes for altruism should have become extinct long ago. It should be the most ruthless who survive and pass on their genes to the next generation.
And yet, Darwin noted that in every single society that he ever visited, it was the altruists, those who thought of the common good, not their individual good, who are most respected. And he wanted to know, why was this? How did it happen? It seemed to refute his theory. And he gives the answer in The Descent of Man, (not in The Origin of Species). And he says that because we live in groups, because we are social animals, because every “I” searches for some more to make an “Us”, the group that has the most effective altruism will be the strongest group. And that is why they survive. To put it in contemporary terms, we hand on our genes as individuals, but we survive only as members of groups.
Now, this means that there’s good news and bad news here. Because altruism is something that we practise towards the members of our own group. We cooperate, but we cooperate in order to compete with other groups. So the best in us and the worst in us are born at the same time and through the same process. Because we’re nice to the people like us and pretty nasty sometimes to the people not like us. Our sociality turns the individual selves into a collective “Us”, but we are defined over and against a “Them” who are different from us and maybe even threatening to us.
And so the universal human temptation to think that the guys like us are great and the guys not like us are not great, they may be threatening, they may be our opponents, they may be our enemies, they even may be a little less than human, until you get this enormous history of violence and confrontation between different groups, until ultimately, people in crisis begin to see life divided between the children of light, which is “Us”, and the children of darkness, which is “Them”. And from that flows all the evil in the human situation.
So the question is, how can we have the altruism without the aggression? How can we move from an “Us and Them” to a larger collective “Us”? And that, I think, is the kind of thing that the Bible is really encouraging us to do when it once, in Leviticus 19 (and of course in the New Testament), says, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” But keeps repeating, “Love the stranger”, the one not like you, because you know what it is like to be a stranger. You know what it is to be an outsider to someone else. You were once strangers in the land of Egypt.
Or as I put it, the most powerful thing the Bible says is in Genesis chapter one, when God makes each one of us in His image and likeness, and in so doing gives us the following challenge, can we see God’s likeness in one who is not in our likeness, in somebody whose colour or culture or creed or class is different from ours? To put it religiously, can I see the traits of God in the face of a stranger? And when that happens, that awful source of human violence between us and them suddenly dissolves. When I discover that the person not like us is actually a person like us. When that happens, really, really great things happen.
So that is the challenge of civilisation, but it is particularly a challenge now. I’m quite relieved at this point in time that I chose not to go into politics. Aren’t most of us, right now? It’s an odd time in politics. And what everyone is saying after the American election and the British election, is that the old divide between right and left is no longer the big political divide. The big political divide is between open and closed. And that is where I think something is so interesting. There are open personalities and there are closed personalities. And what’s the difference? A closed personality is somebody who feels threatened by somebody different from me. An open personality is someone who feels enlarged by somebody different from me. Because actually, each one of us is limited. And when our world includes people not like us, our world grows and becomes wider and richer and more colourful.
So, to cultivate open personalities in our children is to begin to heal that awful fracture in the human condition that makes us fear those who are different. We have to really feel enlarged by the people who are different. And that takes three forms. You have rightly identified them. Number one, avoiding harming others. Number two, practising acts of kindness. And number three, showing respect.
Number one, avoiding acts of harm to others. I am just about to begin a new translation of the Hebrew Bible. And I want to share with you one line in the Hebrew Bible that I have never seen ever correctly translated. The reason it’s never been correctly translated is, it’s untranslatable. But listen very carefully.
You remember the first act of violence in the Bible, first two human brothers, Cain and Abel. And this is what the Bible says. Forgive me if I say it in Hebrew, because I’m going to translate. [Hebrew 00:16:21]. Cain said to Abel his brother, [Hebrew 00:16:26]. And it came to pass when they were together in the field, that Cain rose up against his brother and killed him. No Bible translates that correctly, because it is actually fractured syntax. It says, Cain said to his brother Abel, but it doesn’t say what he said. So most translations will say, Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go into the field.” But the text doesn’t say that. Listen once more. And Cain said to his brother Abel, dot, dot, dot. And it came when they were in the field, that he rose against him and killed him.
The Bible is telling us by fractured syntax, what it feels like to have a fractured relationship. When words fail, violence begins. And that is what it’s telling us in that really powerful way. And therefore, if we really learn to communicate with others, we begin to heal that tendency to harm others, which is so terrible in all human beings and can happen, as you know, among kids at school, and can happen among any of us.
W. H. Auden so rightly said, “I and the public know what all school children learn, those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.” So every time we harm someone, that harm rebounds on us and others and generates a chain of harm that we have to stop at the very beginning, by never letting the relationship fracture to the point where, to quote a writer called Alan Brien, “Violence is the repartee of the inarticulate.” We have to stop that.
Number two, practise acts of kindness. And here I come to one of the more difficult moments in my life, when my late father of blessed memory died. In Judaism, we do something called sit shiva. We sit together, the family, for a week, and people come and comfort us. My late father had a difficult life. He left school at the age of 14, never had the chances that he would have had. He came as a refugee.
And after he died, this difficult life, people came to comfort me and my other brothers, and they were telling us of little acts of kindness he had done, maybe in some cases before we be born, 50, 60 years ago. And I was thinking to myself, “Dad had such a difficult life. He felt so unvalued. Why did you have to wait till he died before you remembered that? Why didn’t you tell him then?” And then I suddenly realised, that is the human situation. We never know what effects one act of kindness can have on another life. But this I learned, that the good we do lives on after us, and it is the most important thing that does.
If you think back to moments in your life, I know in my life there were moments when my whole life might have ended in disaster were it not for one kind word from somebody who mattered, there were many moments in my life like that. And you and I know, that the people we’ve taught or we’ve influenced will sometimes come up to us years later and thank us for an act of kindness that we can’t even vaguely remember doing, didn’t mean that much to us, but it meant that much to the people we did it for and to. One smile, one kind word, one encouraging word can lift somebody from depression, can give somebody hope for the future, can give somebody the energy to keep going until the next time. That is acts of kindness that change and humanise our world.
And finally, respect. I was Chief Rabbi for 22 years, which meant that I got to be able to invite really interesting and important people to dinner. This was terrific. Sometimes they were so great, I was the only person around the table that I’d never heard of. And I remember that people used to, at the end, they used to thank my wife and myself, thank the host and the hostess. And it came, one moment, one occasion after a few years, when for the first time ever, a guest got up, and having thanked Elaine and myself, said, “Do you mind if I go into the kitchen to thank the waiters and the waitress?” This was the first person who thought of thanking the people that we normally don’t thank. That person happened to be the then Prime Minister, John Major. And I realised, true greatness is showing respect to the people other people don’t notice. The people who show respect, win respect. And that had a huge, huge influence on me. So when we’re teaching kids to respect one another, we are teaching them greatness.
Friends, I think I’m just about to exceed my time limit. So thank you for listening so carefully and allowing myself this fantasy I’ve had for 60 years to get a word back to teach the teachers of today. I don’t want to receive my report card just yet. Just keep it to yourselves. But thank you and bless you for what you’re doing. Because the truth is that politicians move the pieces, but teachers change lives. And the world we build tomorrow is born in the education we give today.
So thank you for all you do, and may all you do be blessed, and may we all be blessed by those whom you inspire to build a better and more gracious world. Thank you very much.