Below is a video of Rabbi Sacks’ pre-Selichot address, delivered in Hampstead Synagogue in London on 21st September 2019.
Film courtesy of Promo TV/Whammy Productions
Friends, we live in an unforgiving age. In 2015, a British scientist, Sir Tim Hunt, a Nobel-Prize-winning scientist, no less made his visit to South Korea. The only thing is in 2015, they hadn’t taught the South Koreans “Oseh Shalom”. [Congregation laughter]
On his visit four years ago, he made in the course of his speech, a bad joke about women in laboratories. It was a silly joke and he admitted it, and it fell flat. However, one person tweeted the joke and it went around the world and became viral, and thereafter he became the target of an online shaming campaign, the end of which was he was forced to resign his position at University College London, forced to resign his position in the Royal Society, forced to resign his position in the European Research Council, and turned into a pariah. Despite the fact that he obviously was only making a joke, (immediately afterwards in his talk said, “Science needs women.”) And despite the fact that his wife is a distinguished scientist, despite the fact that he apologised time and time again, despite the fact that he was defended by fellow scientists, from Brian Cox, all the way to his holiness, Richard Dawkins [Congregation laughter], the truth is, they were telling the world it was only a joke. And yet he was condemned without trial, without consideration of the evidence, without due process, without appeal, without mercy, without regard to his lifetime of service to science, without regard to the simple fact that he was a human being and human beings make mistakes. Ours is an unforgiving age.
Jordan Peters is a psychologist at the University of Toronto. He is probably the most followed public intellectual in the world right now. He has a huge following because he’s a counter-cultural figure and he has the courage to challenge some politically-correct positions. This summer, he was due to serve as a research fellow in the Cambridge Divinity School, which your Rabbi knows well, because he has been teaching there and will do so until the 30th of September this month, when he may lose his position because of what I’m about to say, (but I’m sorry in advance. Okay?)
Somebody discovered, somewhere on Facebook, that somebody unknown had taken a selfie with Jordan Peters and the somebody who took the selfie was wearing a t-shirt with a slogan on it that was not terribly nice. Now, hundreds of people on that night that Jordan Peters gave a lecture wanted a selfie with him. Hundreds of people took a selfie with him. He had no chance of scrutinising what the people who were taking selfies with him were wearing. He had no idea what was written on the t-shirt, and yet he was condemned. Who is he condemned by? The Cambridge Divinity School.
Let me ask you, Michael Harris, [turns to Rabbi Harris] have they heard of the word ‘forgiveness’ in the Cambridge Divinity School or is that recherché? Or, maybe they’ve heard of the word ‘justice’? Here is a man condemned because of somebody else’s selfie with him, somebody else’s t-shirt, with no trial, no evidence, no judicial process, no reflective moral judgement, no “vedarashta vechakarta ve’sha’alta haytayve” as the Torah tells us to do, to examine the evidence well, and see “emet nachon hadavar” [Devarim 13:15] if the thing is true? None of that. Just simple condemnation.
Now, I happen to have the privilege of knowing Jordan Peterson. I went to interview him at his home in Toronto, and we had a long conversation together, which you can hear in its entirety on the BBC website. Here is a serious human being. A man whose work is intensely moral, deeply spiritual, intellectually challenging. A person who was focused on what we are going to focus on tonight, and for the next few days until Yom Kippur, the focus on taking responsibility for your life. Not blaming other people, but taking responsibility. That’s what Selichot are about. Nothing was said in his defence, not even from the faculty of divinity. Ours is an unforgiving age.
So, here was a man who made a slightly ill-judged joke, and here was a man who had the misfortune to have a selfie taken together with somebody wearing an inappropriate t-shirt and these were the people for whom, in Maimonidies words: “The gates of repentance were closed.” Nobody gave them a chance to say, “I’m sorry” or to explain or to be forgiven, nothing.
Now consider two people who actually did wrong – wrong so bad that we would understand if somebody said what they did was unforgivable.
I think first of all, of a young man who said these words: “Ma betzah ki naharog et achinu …?” “What profit will we get if we kill our brother?” Come, let’s sell him as a slave, let’s not kill him. After all, he’s our brother, our own flesh and blood…
A young man who sold his brother as a slave. His name was Yehudah. That was a real, real sin and yet he became the ancestor of Israel’s Kings. He became a lot more than that. We bear his name. We are called Jews because we are yehudim, because we are named after Yehudah. Why? Because he was forgiven. And why was he forgiven? Because he owned up, he said, ““Aval asheimim anachnu”, “We were guilty.” He said, (in words we’re going to say at Selichos soon),
“Ma-nidaber uma-nitz’tadak” – “What more can we say to justify ourselves?” He said, “haelokim matza et-ha’avon avadecha”, “God has discovered, uncovered our guilt.” [Bereishit 44:16]
What’s more, he changed: From the person who sold his brother as a slave, he became the person who was willing to spend the rest of his life as a slave so that his brother Benjamin could go free. He became a Ba’al Teshuvah. Joseph, his brother, forgave him. God forgave him, and it is his name we bear.
Let me give you a second example. Here I talk about a King of Israel whose behaviour was well, how can I put it? In the immortal words of the late Leonard Cohen: “Your faith was strong, but you needed proof. You saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you.” I hope that doesn’t need any Rashi and Tosefot for anyone. [Congregation laughter]
The King of Israel had an adulterous relationship with somebody else’s wife and then sent her husband to the frontline of the army. This was a horrendous sin. It was an appalling crime. And yet he became Israel’s greatest King. More than that, he became perhaps the greatest religious poet the world has ever known. Why? Because he was forgiven, and why was he forgiven? Because he said in the shortest form of Selichot ever delivered in one word, “Chatati”. “I have sinned.” But he didn’t just say that. He said, “Vechatati negdi tamid.”, “My sin is in front of me all the time.” [Tehillim 51:4] I will never, for one minute, forget that I sinned. And so, he was forgiven.
So, Judah and King David were Ba’alei Teshuvah, who confessed and apologised and they changed, and they were forgiven. And they committed serious wrongs, not jokes in bad taste or t-shirts in a selfie, and yet that were forgiven. Imagine they hadn’t been forgiven. If Yehudah hadn’t been forgiven, there would be no Jews today because it was Yehudah who survived when the 10 tribes in the North disappeared from history, the lost 10 tribes. If King David hadn’t been forgiven, there would be no Book of Psalms today and the whole world would be impoverished.
What’s the difference? The difference is because at the heart of our faith is a God who forgives. Vayomer Hashem salachti kidvarecha. [Bamidbar 14:20] God says to us, “Be honest with Me and then I will forgive you.” Then He says to us, as we will say over and over again tonight and throughout Selichot, “Hashem Hashem, Kel rachum v’chanun.” “God is a God of mercy and compassion”. And when did He say those words? After the worst sin of all, the Golden Calf. Forty days after receiving the Torah of Mount Sinai, the worst sin of all and God forgave. God forgives.
What happens when an entire culture loses faith in God? I’ll tell you all that’s left. All that’s left is an unconscious universe of impersonal forces that doesn’t care if we exist or not.
In the other direction, all that’s left is a world of Facebook and Twitter and viral videos in which anyone can pass judgement on anyone without regard to the facts or truth or reflective moral judgement and by the time the person accused has had the chance to explain, or the truth has emerged, the crowd has already moved on. They’re not interested anymore.
And what happens in an unforgiving culture? In an unforgiving culture, the people who survive and thrive are the people without shame.
Have a look at who is powerful in the world today. They are the people without shame, because those are the only people who survive in a world without forgiveness. Whereas we believe that God gives us a chance to acknowledge our mistakes and where, if we are honest about the wrong we have done, if tonight we stand before HaKadosh Baruch Hu with a broken heart, if we are willing to have the guts to say, “Aval asheimim anachnu” We really did get it wrong. If we are able to say, like David HaMelech “Chatati”, “I sinned”, then God gives us a second chance.
And that is what Selichot are all about. About being honest, about being candid, about saying, “Ribono Shel Olam, I know I let You down. I know I let others down. I know I let me down, but shema koli, shma koleinu, listen to me, Ribono Shel Olam. Hear my cry. Help me become the person You created me to be.”
A year or two ago, I was just about to give a lecture in a big shul in America, 1,000 people in the audience. To get 1,000 Jews to sit down is hard as the division of the Red Sea as you know. [Congregation chuckles] So, we had a certain wait in front of us, and the Rabbi of the shul, a very sweet man said to me, “Rabbi Sacks, do you mind, we’ve got 10 minutes before we have to begin. Every week I do a radio programme, the local Jewish radio programme, and we’ve got 10 minutes. Would you do an interview with me?” So I said, “Fine!” So, we went into his study, just the two of us, and this is what he asked me.
He said, “Rabbi Sacks, I look at your CV, I look at your career, tell me Rabbi Sacks, did you ever fail at anything?” I almost fell out of my chair laughing. I said, [chuckling] “I have failed at almost everything.” My favourite sentence in the English language is Winston Churchill’s definition of success. You know his definition of success? “Going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” [Laughter from the congregation]
So, I tried to explain to the Rabbi the real difference is not between failure and success. The real difference is between failing and giving up and failing and keeping on going. That’s the real difference in life. And what keeps me going, I explained to him, is the simple knowledge that God lifts us when we fall and God forgives us when we fail.
So, I have one request of you. Forget the public persona of perfection that people post on their social media as their defence against an unforgiving world. Forget that and know in our davenning that in the inner-reaches of our soul we can be honest with ourselves, we can acknowledge the ways in which we’ve failed and fell short, because we know that God forgives, and in that forgiveness, God gives us the strength to heal what we have harmed, to mend what we have broken, and to become the person He wants us to be.
May Hashem give us that strength.
Keyn yehi ratzon venomar, Amen
[Congregation joins in, “Amen”. Applause.]