On Parshat Terumah and Giving
On 13 February 2013, Rabbi Sacks addressed a JLIC event for gap year students at the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem. The shiur was in memory of Marc Weinberg z”l, and was followed by a Q&A session.
Kavod HaRav, Rabbotai, beloved friends. It’s a privilege to be with you this morning. It’s a privilege to deliver some words in the memory of Marc Weinberg z”l, one of the finest young men I ever met.
Marc cared so passionately for his Yiddishkeit, but he cared no less so for the people he met. He was always encouraging people to fulfil their full potential, to grow as people. And although he died at a tragically young age, in a strange way, mitzvah goreret mitzvah, the good we do continues to beget good, and the influence he had in his all too short a life continues to this day. Tzaddikim don’t die, because the good they do continues to operate in the world. And therefore, in memory of a remarkable young man who was a leader in himself, and a source of leadership in others, I dedicate these words.
It’s lovely to be in such a wonderful crowd. Standing in Yerushalayim, you meet everyone you ever wanted to meet, who you ought to meet. There are plenty of other places where you can meet people you don’t want to meet, but in Yerushalayim, only the best people gather here, and thank you for being here.
Rabbosai, Parshat Terumah begins a most extraordinary sequence. Hakamat haMishkan, the building of the first collective House of God, occupies Terumah, Tetzaveh, half of Ki Tissa, Vayakhel and Pekudei, an enormous length – the longest, as it were, single sequence in the Torah.
And there is something very strange about it. As the late Nechama Leibowitz, of blessed memory, pointed out, there are linguistic parallels between the act of the Israelites creating the Mishkan and the act of Hakadosh Baruch Hu in creating the universe. There are a whole series of parallels: ‘vaya’as’, ‘hamelachah’, ‘vayachal’, ‘vayevarech’ – key words appear in both narratives. Now, contrast them. Hakadosh Baruch Hu creates the universe, a vast universe, 13.7 billion light years across (and still expanding), as against this tiny, portable Beit Knesset, really, the Mishkan, this tiny little thing. And yet, how many passukim does it take the Torah to describe Creation? 34. 31 in Bereishit 1, the first three passukim of Bereishit 2. 34 passukim. But the Mishkan? 500-600 passukim.
How come the Torah goes in such greater length in describing the building of the Mishkan than briat ha’olam? And the answer I once suggested was this. It is not difficult for an infinite, omnipotent Creator to create a home for human beings. What is difficult is for finite, frail, and fallible human beings to create a home for Hakadosh Baruch Hu. That is the tough challenge. And that is why the Torah is ma’arich on b’niyat haMishkan and mekatzer on briat ha’olam. However, there is another question about this whole sequence. Tell me, how in one phrase, one line, would you describe the subject of Sefer Shemot? Am Yisrael. Yeah, it’s the first time the word ‘am’ appears in the connection with Am Yisrael. In Shemot, chapter one: “Hinei am bnei Yisrael rav v’atzum mimenu” (Shemot 1:9) – the first time the word ‘am’ appears in the Jewish connection in the Torah. Bereishit is the story of the birth of the Jewish family; Shemot, the birth of the Jewish nation.
Now, if you didn’t know where the episode of the Mishkan occurred, and all you knew were there were five Books of Moses, which book would you expect to find it in? Vayikra, which deals with Torat Kohanim, with korbanot, with avodat haMishkan. If I didn’t know, I would have said that’s where you would find it. Instead, we find it as the last third of Sefer Shemot, which is the birth of Israel as a nation.
And that is what I want to ask today. Why is the story of the binyan Mikdash, “ve’asu li Mikdash, veshachanti betocham” (Shemot 25:8), why is it in Shemot and not in Vayikra? And I’m going to suggest the following. A nation means that each of us as individuals recognise that there is something bigger than us, there’s the Am as a whole. And Moshe Rabbeinu had to turn a group of escaping slaves into a nation capable of acting together to build a land, a state, a holy nation in the Holy Land. And what do we find throughout Sefer Shemot? The Israelites, given any opportunity, complain. Moshe Rabbeinu comes, says, Hakadosh Baruch Hu, He’s going to lead you out to freedom. It makes things temporarily worse – they complain. Moshe Rabbeinu takes them out into the desert and there’s no water – they complain. Moshe Rabbeinu brings them water from a rock, but it’s not Perrier – they complain. There’s no food – they complain. Moshe brings them “lechem min hashamayim” (Shemot 16:4), maan. It’s not fleishik – they complain. They come up against the Red Sea – they want to go back to Egypt. Moshe Rabbeinu does the biggest miracle of all, kriyat yam suf. They go through, and for a moment, “vaya’aminu ba’Hashem uv’Moshe avdo” (Shemot 14:31). How long did that last? Three days. And then, “v’lo matzu mayim” (Shemot 15:22) – and they complain again.
So Hakadosh Baruch Hu says, “You know what? I’m going to do something spectacular. Never happened before, never will happen again. I will appear, Hakadosh Baruch Hu bichvodo uve’atzmo, at Har Sinai, and I will teach My people the Torah.” There never was a revelation like this. Nobody ever claimed a revelation like this in the entire history of religion. There are other religions in which God is revealed to son of God, other religions in which God is revealed to prophet of God, but no religion in which God is revealed to people of God. 600,000 – shishim ribo. It doesn’t happen. “Vayanu’u vayamdu merachok” (Shemot 20:15), and the people tremble. There was real yirat shamayim. How long did that last? 40 days. And then comes egel hazahav. The people create the golden calf, after all the miracles, and all the wonders, and the revelation at Har Sinai. So how does Hakadosh Baruch Hu go one better than kriyat yam suf and ma’amad Har Sinai? What’s one step higher than that? There is no step higher than that. So how is Moshe Rabbeinu going to transform this complaining, volatile, backsliding, mercurial group of individuals into a nation?
And it is then that Hakadosh Baruch Hu does the most unexpected thing. In psychotherapy they call it paradoxical intervention. He says, “daber el Bnei Yisrael veyikchu li terumah” (Shemot 25:2) and “ve’asu li Mikdash veshachanti betocham” (Shemot 25:8). You want Moshe Rabbeinu to turn this people into a people? Even after kriyat yam suf, even after the revelation at Har Sinai? I’ll tell you how it is done. Get them to build Me something, together.
And during the whole period of binyan haMishkan, there’s no arguments, no complaints, no sin, no backsliding. Moshe Rabbeinu asks people to give, and it’s not compulsory, it’s voluntary, “me’et kol ish asher yidvenu libo” (Shemot 25:2). And the people give, the men, the women. Some give gold, some silver, some nechoshet. Some give jewels, some give of their wealth, some give of their time, some give of their skills. But everyone gives, so much so that for the first (and quite possibly the last) time in history, a fundraising campaign has to end with the words, “Stop, we have too much already”. All of a sudden, this complaining and divided nation has become non-complaining. It’s become passionate. It volunteers. It’s working together.
And why? Why did that work? And why did kriyat yam suf and ma’amad Har Sinai not transform the people? And it is only when we reflect on that, that we encounter one of the most profound truths in the religious life. Which is: it is not what Hashem does for us that transforms us, it is what we do for Hashem. That changes us.
Hakadosh Baruch Hu, every day and every moment, is giving every one of us a series of miracles, “hamechadesh betuvo bechol yom tamid ma’aseh bereishit” (Birkot Kriyat Shema). Every breath we take is a gift from Hakadosh Baruch Hu. God is giving us all the time. But the greatest gift God gives us is the opportunity to give Him something. That is extraordinary. That is what the mukubalim called tzimtzum. God actually makes it possible for us, frail and fallible, to give Him something. “Va’asu li Mikdash veshachanti betocham” (Shemot 25:8). And it is when we give, when we do, when we build, that is when we reach our full maturity. That’s when we reach the full height God has created for us.
That is when individuals stop being individualistic and join together in a higher common cause. That is when a nation is built. And that is why binyan haMishkan is in Sefer Shemot, and not in Sefer Vayikra.
And now I want to show you something, something very striking about Sefer Shemot as a whole. And I just want to explain this to you. If you look carefully at Sefer Shemot, you will see there are various episodes that seem to be doubled. So, let me give you a few examples.
Number one, the most famous example is the luchot. God gives the luchot to Moshe, and to Israel, twice: “luchot harishonim asher shibarta” (Shemot 34:1), that Moshe Rabbeinu broke, and the luchot shniyot. Number two, Parashat Beshalach, which is a kind of turning point in Jewish history, as the Israelites go through the sea and move from the domain of Paroh to the domain, as it were, of the midbar, where they can hear the Medaber.
Immediately before and immediately after kriyat yam suf, there is a battle. Only there is a difference between the battle before and the battle after. Do you know what the difference is? Listen very carefully to what it says before kriyat yam suf. “Vayomer Moshe el ha’am, al tira’u, hityatzvu ure’u et yeshuat Hashem asher ya’aseh lachem hayom” (Shemot 14:13), he says to the people, “Don’t be afraid, stand still. See the salvation of Hashem, which He is going to do for you today”. “Ki asher ra’item et mitzrayim hayom, lo tosifu lirot od ad olam. Hashem yilachem lachem, va’atem tacharishun” (Shemot 14:13-14), God will fight for you, and you be quiet. The battle before kriyat yam suf was fought by Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
What about the battle after kriyat yam suf, milchemet Amalek? “Vayomer Moshe el Yehoshua, bachar lanu anashim vetzei, hilachem ba’Amalek” (Shemot 17:9). The battle after yam suf was fought by the Israelites. God did not fight it for them. There was no “hityatzvu ure’u et yeshuat Hashem”. The battle before kriyat yam suf, God did. The battle afterwards, Israel did, inspired by God. “Vayehi ka’asher yarim Moshe yado vegavar Yisrael, vecha’asher yaniach yado vegavar Amalek” (Shemot 17:11), yes, whenever Moses lifted his hands, the people looked towards heaven. They were inspired by God, but they fought the battle themselves.
What was the difference between the first and second luchot? Anyone know? Yeah, about the first luchot it says “vehaluchot ma’aseh Elokim heymah, vehamichtav michtav Elokim hu charut al haluchot” (Shemot 32:16), the first tablets were all done by Hashem. But in the second tablets, “vayomer Hashem el Moshe, pesal lecha shnei luchot avanim karishonim, vechatavti al haluchot” (Shemot 34:1), you hew the tablets, and I will inscribe.
There were two revelations in Shemot, of the anan Hashem covering something. First, “vaya’al Moshe el hahar, vayechas ha’anan et hahar” (Shemot 24:15). At the giving of Torah, the cloud covered the mountain. And at the end, when the people have finished completing the Mishkan, the end of Sefer Shemot, “vayechas ha’anan et ohel mo’ed uchvod Hashem maleh et haMishkan” (Shemot 40:34). The cloud of Hashem filled the Mishkan. In other words, as you’ll see in Joshua Berman’s little book called ‘The Temple’, the Mishkan was a kind of mini Har Sinai, it was a portable Har Sinai. So again, we see the difference. The first revelation of anan Hashem is on a God-made mountain, but the second revelation is on a man-made space, the Mishkan, and so on and so forth.
There are two accounts of the building of the Mishkan, account one, Terumah and Tetzaveh, account two, Vayakhel and Pikudei. The difference is, Terumah and Tetzaveh are God’s command, and Vayakhel and Pikudei are the Israelites fulfilment of those commands. So in other words, there are a whole series of episodes which are doubled, but in which episode one is what the mekubalim call “itaruta dela’eila”, an awakening from above. God initiates, God does the doing. And in the second one, it is “itaruta delatata”, it is human beings taking the initiative. Moses carves the rock, the Israelites fight the battle, Bnei Yisrael create the space filled by anan kevod Hashem, and so on and so forth.
And it is, in each case, the second of the two that transform the people who are involved. So, for instance, whereas the Bnei Yisrael complain before the battle with Mitzrayim, there is no complaint from the Israelites ever recorded with milchemet Amalek. When Amalek comes, and Amalek was worse in some respects than Mitzrayim, nonetheless, there’s no complaint, no saying, “Let’s go back to Egypt”. The truth is they fight the battle themselves and they find the courage, inspired by Moses’ uplifted hands to fight.
What happened after the luchot shniyot that didn’t happen after the first luchot? Moses’ face shone, “u’Moshe lo yada ki karan or panav” (Shemot 34:29). Why? Because he had a share in making them. The first tablets, he didn’t have a share. His face didn’t shine. He wasn’t transformed. He was merely, you know, Hashem did it and gave it to Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe Rabbeinu stayed the same Moshe Rabbeinu. But once Moshe Rabbeinu had done the “pesal lecha”, then he was a different Moshe Rabbeinu. To repeat, it is not what God does for us that changes us, it’s what we do for Hashem.
And if that is so, then we arrive at the following very, very paradoxical conclusion. That there are two ways of reading Sefer Shemot. Way one, we all learnt as children. Sefer Shemot is the book that contains more miracles done by God than all the other books of Tanach put together. It’s a book of God doing it for us. That is the superficial reading of Shemot.
But what I’ve tried to show you is that there is a second narrative throughout Shemot, from beginning to end, which tells a quite different story, which we only fully understand when we’re no longer children, and when we grow up. And then we can hear this, which is that Sefer Shemot is Hashem’s call to us to exercise responsibility. I want you to fight your battles for you. I will be with you, giving you the courage and the inspiration to win. But I won’t be fighting the battle – you will be fighting the battle. I will be with you in the Mishkan, but first, you have to make the Mishkan. I will be with you in the luchot, but first you have to carve the luchot.
There’s one shita that the first tablets and the second tablets had a big difference between them. According to this shita, which of course, Rav Soloveichik zt”l held by, is that with the first tablets, God gave Moses only Torah shebichtav. With the second tablets, he gave Torah shebichtav and also Torah sheba’al peh. The big difference is Torah shebichtav is kulo kodesh, it’s all from Hakadosh Baruch Hu. There’s no human element in Torah shebichtav, it’s all Hakadosh Baruch Hu. But Torah sheba’al peh, it is we, using “chaneinu me’itcha de’ah bina vehaskel” (Amida prayer), the knowledge, wisdom and understanding that Hashem has given us to be mevin davar mitoch davar, and to apply all the 13 rules of Rabbi Yishmael, etc, etc. And to be mevin davar mitoch davar, etc, etc, using our own intellectual skills given to us by Hashem, we draw out the implicit Divine message through Torah sheba’al peh. And that is why the luchot shniyot had that transformative effect. In the fullness of time, it was Torah sheba’al peh that kept the Jewish people alive. To this day, you are learning Gemara, you are learning Torah sheba’al peh. So it is not what God does for us, but what we do for Hashem that changes us.
Sefer Shemot is Hashem’s call to responsibility. Hashem is saying to us, don’t leave it to Me. I want you to become My shutafim l’Hakadosh Baruch Hu bema’aseh bereishit. I want you to be my partners. I want you to exercise responsibility. To be a Jew is to accept responsibility. To be a Jew is not to see suffering, and evil, and injustice in the world, and say, “That’s the way the world is”, or “That’s the way Hashem wants it”. To be a Jew is to say, no, I will fight injustice. I will be a teacher fighting ignorance, a lawyer fighting injustice, an economist fighting poverty, a doctor fighting disease, a therapist fighting depression. I am not going to leave the world as it is. I am going to become Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s partner in changing and redeeming the world. That’s what God is saying to us in Sefer Shemot. That is the great meaning of why Terumah is there. Terumah was the first act of creation undertaken collectively by Bnei Yisrael.
And the greatest act of creation undertaken by the Jewish people as a whole in 2000 years is Medinat Yisrael, which we are sitting in right now and celebrating right now, because we got Israel. When great rabbanim, Rav Yehuda Alkalai, and Rav Kalischer, and Rav Reines, and Rav Kook zt”l understood that Hakadosh Baruch Hu is crying to us from heaven, saying, “tzei hilachem b’Amalek” (Shemot 17:9), don’t let the world attack you. Go and fight. Fight for your space. Come back to the land. Bnei Yisrael heard that call, some of them knew they heard that call, there were certain chilonim who thought they were doing it on their own. But then I say, I believe that secular Israelis are the only people who really believe that secular Israelis are secular, because deep down they are ma’aminim bnei ma’aminim. It’s just they don’t know it yet, but deep down they are.
And therefore, the State of Israel is something the Jewish people did for God when they didn’t sit and wait for God to do it for us. And that is what changes us. To really hear the call of Hashem as He calls to each of us, ayeka, where are you, is to hear His call to go out and transform the world, and to turn chol into kodesh, and to turn ra into tov, and to turn klalah into bracha. That is the Jewish way. And that is the way God becomes something within us, not something external to us. God becomes the force that gives us the energy to create a better world.
So as you study this year, or these years, as you go back to wherever you’re going to on the next stage of your Jewish journey, hear Hashem’s call to responsibility. Make a decision. I am not, in my lifetime, going to leave the world the way it is. When I see something wrong, I’m going to help to put it right. When I see some desolation, there I am going to build a home for the Shechinah. Whether it is in your friends who are dropping out of yiddishkeit or it’s… I don’t know what, whatever it is, you will know. You will hear Hashem’s call.
When you see something wrong, and you don’t wait for Hashem to put it right, you hear Hashem within you, giving you the strength to put it right, that is when you build a little bit of your own Mishkan.
May Hashem give us all the strength, not to accept the world, but to transform the world, and take the world that is, a little closer to the world that ought to be. To be makarev et hageulah, to bring closer redemption, one day at a time, one act at a time. That is Hashem’s call to us. And the truth is, the word terumah, which means a contribution, also means something you lift. Or to be more precise, something that you think you lift but actually is lifting you. “Aron noseh et nosav” (Sotah 35a). The more you give, the more you will be lifted and the more tall you will walk. May Hashem bless all you do, and may you be a source of pride to Am Yisrael and of nachat ruach to Hashem. Amen.
The first question has to be a very loud question.
Speaker 1: What does reishit tzmichat geulateinu mean to the Rav?
Rabbi Sacks: Reishit tzmichat geulateinu means that Am Yisrael has taken the first step, and Hashem is waiting for us to take the next step. Would you like to know what the next step is? The first step was to build Medinat Yisrael. The second step will be to build chevrah Yisraelit –not just a Jewish state, but a Jewish society, in which we fight poverty the way the Torah tells us to. Only now we have a hi-tech economy, we don’t have an agrarian economy, so leket, shich’cha, pe’ah, ma’aser ani, and all this kind of stuff, we have to finesse it the way Chazal did, by translating that into the generic word tzedakah. We have to fight poverty in Israel. We have to fight underprivilege in Israel. We have to fight the general cynicism that people have about the political system. We have to read the haftarah of Shabbos Chazon probably once a week at least after we’ve been reading the Israeli press. I don’t think Israel is any different here from any other country. But politics should be a matter of principle, not a matter of… etc.
In other words, that whole prophetic imperative, Hashem did not by accident tell us in the Torah that the way from Eretz Canaan to the Promised Land passes through Egypt, which looks on the map like a diversion. Actually, it wasn’t a diversion. Am Yisrael had to live, to see with its own eyes and feel with its own bones what a hierarchical, unequal, oppressive society looks like, and then they would know, we are going to create a society that will be the opposite of Egypt. That’s why Hakadosh Baruch Hu gave us Shabbos, not only zeicher lema’aser bereishit, but zeicher leyetziat Mitzrayim. In Mitzrayim, if you were a slave, if you work without stop, in Israel, everyone is going to rest and be free for one day in seven. A society that is the living embodiment of all the values in Torah. Read Torah, read the mosaic books from the beginning of Bereishit to the end of Sefer Devarim, and you will see this is not a code for personal happiness, nirvana, bliss, whatever. It’s not a private code for deveikus even. It’s a code for building a society driven by the values of tzedek, mishpat, chesed and rachamim.
And I tell you, I’ve just been on a mission to various places in the Galil where there’s a lot of poverty and a lot of families that didn’t have chances. And I have been so inspired by what is going on every single day here in this country, often by people who are doing ratzon Hashem without even knowing they’re doing ratzon Hashem, because Hakadosh Baruch Hu knew we were that kind of people, that’s why He chose us. And these are beautiful things, but the world doesn’t know about them, and they don’t happen evenly all the way through Israel. So we have to take the Torah into the reshut harabim, by which I do not mean the Knesset necessarily. I mean the reshut harabim, where people really live, not where they vote, where they live. And that is the next step. And that will be an even bigger – well, not an even bigger – it will be an equal next step in tzmichat geulateinu. Step three. Let’s just finish step two before we discuss step three. But step three will come. We just have to keep going.
Don’t think that in 1948, Yom Haatzmaut, hakamat hamedinah, that was enough. Reishit tzmichat geulateinu means it has to be after step one, step two, yeah.
Speaker 2: [Inaudible question at 34:31 Why doesn’t every Jew make aliya? How should we view those who refuse to move to Israel?]
Rabbi Sacks: Look, aliya is simply this: that in Israel, Judaism is at home. Everywhere else, it’s a bit of a guest and a bit of a stranger. So I happen to live in ir hakodesh, St John’s Wood in London, and I’ll tell you what Shabbos is in St John’s Wood in London. Shabbos there is wonderful at home, and in shul, and in kiddish after shul, it’s gevaldig. But you go out into the street, and it ain’t Shabbos. In Yerushalayim, Shabbos is in the reshut harabim, Shabbat is an objective thing, whereas in chutz la’aretz it’s a subjective state. Are you with me? So in chutz la’aretz, Shabbat is in galut.
Ramban was not just talking mysticism when he says in his commentary to parshat Acharei Mot, “ikar kol hamitzvot leyoshvim b’eretz Hashem” (Ramban on Vayikra 18:25). Every mitzvah can only be fulfilled in its totality here, in Eretz Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael.
So aliya is the completion of one’s life as a Jew. And some of us will get here quicker than others, and we don’t have to give the others who are travelling slower than us a hard time, okay? We don’t have to give them a hard time.
Have a look at the last Rashi in Sefer Shemot. The last Rashi in Sefer Shemot is on the phrase, and the cloud of Hashem was on the Ohel “b’chol masehem” (Shemot 40:38), during all their journeys. And Rashi quite rightly sees that that phrase cannot be literally true, because b’chol masehem, when they were actually travelling, the cloud wasn’t over the Ohel Mo’ed, it was in front, signalling where they had to travel. So he recognises that it can’t literally be true, because it was only over the Ohel when they were encamped, not when they were travelling. And Rashi says, lefi, because they knew that each place that they stopped, they were going to have to one day uproot and keep travelling, “makom chaniyatan af hu karu’i masa” (Rashi on Shemot 40:38), even when they were still and encamped, it was still called part of the journey.
So even if a Jew is still encamped in Melbourne, or Wellington, or even ir hakodesh St. John’s Wood, it doesn’t mean we’re there to stay, it means we’re on a journey. We’re just temporarily encamped. But the best way of hammering that message through is to do it positively, without berating the people who still need to stay in camp for another day or two, or year or two. Okay? We’ll get here in the end.
Speaker 3: As students, especially those of us coming from Israel, going back to America, what can we do to solve or slow the intermarriage assimilation rate, especially in America, as well as other places?
Rabbi Sacks: You know, mishenichnas adar marbim b’simcha – show people Judaism is fun. I don’t mean kef, I mean simcha. Are you with me? You know what, they will tell you, here’s Judaism. Guys, we’re going to give you Judaism 101. Number one, the world hates us. Number two, the world is full of antisemites. Number three, turn on CNN or any European newspaper, they hate Israel. Number four, et cetera. And we have this wonderful, positive message: guys, let’s be Jewish, because lo echad bilvad amad aleinu lechaloteinu ela b’chol dor vador... Great. Thank you. We have enemies. Okay, get over it, guys. Get over it. We have enemies, lots of people have enemies. The Americans have enemies. The Brits have enemies. The Christians have enemies. The Muslims have enemies. It’s not specially Jewish to have enemies.
What is uniquely Jewish is to have enemies and still be b’simcha. Comes to Succos, we leave our dirat keva, we sit in a dirat arai. And in Yerushalayim, it’s beautiful to sit in a succah on Succos, but in ir hakodesh St. John’s Wood, it isn’t. You sit in a succah on Succos, you get wet, you catch cold, it’s freezing, it’s miserable. And what do they call that? Zman simchateinu. Are you with me? On Succos you sit b’tzila demehemnuta, under the shelter of faith, and all the winds in the world can be blowing, and still, a Jew is b’simcha. Go back to your campus. Go out and show people that Judaism is a way of celebrating life, and you will bring Jews back to Judaism.
Speaker 4: [Inaudible question at 38:00 – paraphrased: What would you say is the difference between the first set of luchot (Ten Commandments) and the second set, and therefore what role did chet haegel play in the trajectory of Bnei Yisrael?]
Rabbi Sacks: When it comes to kriyat haTorah, we just listen to Torah. But when it comes to Torah sheba’al Peh, we add our voice to Torah, because for every word of Torah, there’s a commentary. Chazal say, shivim panim laTorah, the Torah has 70 faces. The Maharsha in his Chiddushei Agadot says, there are 600 faces to the Torah. Every Jew has a commentary on the Torah that nobody else has. So when we not only listen to Torah shebichtav, but we add our Torah sheba’al peh, our commentary to God’s word – when God speaks, and we speak back to God, saying, this is how His word strikes us, then the word of God meets the answering word of humanity, and out of that is born something that is always creative. Are you with me?
So the Torah says about the Torah itself that it was a “kol gadol v’lo yasaf” (Devarim 5:19). Yeah? And what does that phrase mean? And Chazal – even Rashi gives two explanations which are completely contradictory. “Kol gadol v’lo yasaf” means, on explanation one, a great voice that never happened again. And the second is “kol gadol v’lo yasaf d’lo p’sik”, a voice that happened once and ever again, a voice that never ended. So how can kol gadol v’lo yasaf mean, on the one hand, a voice that sounded just once and never again, or a voice that sounded ever again? And the answer is, that is Torah shebichtav, and that is Torah sheba’al peh. Torah shebichtav was given once for all time, but Torah sheba’al peh is something we are sharers in and co-creators with through all time.
And that is why the luchot shniyot, which were accompanied by Torah sheba’al peh, were never broken. Whereas the luchot rishonim, which were the holiest object ever carved by God, written by God, the holiest object ever – nonetheless, that was broken. Just as a meteorite can crumble when it enters Earth’s atmosphere, it was just too holy to survive. And that was the difference between one and two.
Speaker 5: So what do you think the role of chet ha’egel plays?
Rabbi Sacks: Chet ha’egel? Well, it wasn’t good news, guys. Sorry. You know roughly what Yehudah Halevi says about chet ha’egel, that it was a very holy sin. You know, they wanted, since “ki boshesh Moshe laredet min hahar” (Shemot 32:1), they wanted God to be close to them. And Yehudah Halevi says that was a correct desire, it was just a wrong way of fulfilling the desire. And that’s why God gave the Mishkan, which was a permanent presence of God in the midst of the camp. And that’s why God gave the second tablets which carried with them that transformative power of making your face shine. So the role that chet ha’egel played in that transition depends actually on how you interpret chet ha’egel, but I’ve given you, I think, the best one, which is the interpretation of Yehudah Halevi in the Kuzari.
Speaker 6: As the Rav said today, in terms of being involved with the world, nowadays, especially, there are many complications. In terms of being on a halachic level, you have things like the resurgence of techeiles. On a more philosophical level, you have homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle. Many times, involving ourselves with the world, especially nowadays, can fight in the face of mesorah. So I was wondering what the Rav had to say in terms of finding the balance between involving ourselves with the world as it is today and our respect for mesorah.
Rabbi Sacks: We have a quite extraordinary contrast at the very beginning, in the opening chapter, as it were, of Jewish history, between Avraham and Lot. Lot chooses to live in Sodom. It’s prosperous. And if we read Bereishit, chapter 19, we see that he’s really assimilated, right? His daughters have married local boys. “Lot yoshev besha’ar Sodom” (Bereishit 19:1), “oto hayom minuhu shofet”, says Rashi – he’d become a judge. He was really one of them. He thought, “I have entered this society. I’m going to act the way this society acts, and I’m going to be accepted”. And do you know what the residents say to him? “Ha’echad ba lagur vayishpot” (Bereishit 19:9), look at this immigrant who thinks he’s one of us and presumes to judge us.
Avraham fights a battle for the people of Sodom in chapter 14. In chapter 18, he davens for them: “Hashofet kol ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat?” (Bereishit 18:25). He davens for them. He fights for them, he davens for them, but he doesn’t become like them. He is true to his faith, and a blessing to others regardless of their faith. As for Lot, who thought he had really become one of them, they look at him like, you know, look at this Jew who thinks he’s one of us. Avraham, who fights for them, who prays for them, but does not become like them, when he needs to buy a plot of land from the Bnei Chet, from the Hittites, what do they say to him? “Nasi Elokim ata betocheinu” (Bereishit 23:6), you are a prince of God in your midst.
Let me tell you, I have lived among non-Jews for 22 years. I don’t stay in my daled amos. I broadcast on the BBC. I write for the national press. I get involved, and I see a lot of Jews who are involved, some of whom stand upright as Jews, sticking to their principles, and some of them who hide their identity as Jews and go along with the crowd. And I will tell you, after 22 years, I have discovered two truths. [Number one], non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism. And number two, non-Jews are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.
Living in society does not mean going along with society. It means being true to yourself and a blessing to others. It does not mean going along. We have a society which is as far from Jewish values in some respect as it is possible to be. And therefore, we’re not going to go along with that. We are going to be there and show that you can live differently.
Now, that’s difficult, because the human urge to conform is immense. Any of you studied psychology? You will know that after the Second World War, in the 50s and 60s, some famous scientific experiments were made on subjects being given simple tests. And they think they’re in a group of six people who were randomly chosen to be in this experiment, but actually, five of the six people are actually scientific researchers pretending to be experimental subjects. And you’re asked, is this line the same length as that line, or this line, or this line? And the five, four of the five, three of the five will give, or all five will give a deliberately wrong answer. And the experimental subject, seeing that everyone else is giving answer A, will, in at least 50% of the time, give the answer A, even though he knows the answer is not A. The urge to conform is so great, it will lead people to believe things they know are false and do things they know are wrong.
Do you think the financial crash of 2008, do you think people didn’t know that this ultra-high leveraging and securitisation of risk and subprime mortgages was not a fraud against the public? They knew it. Warren Buffett said so in 2002, six years before the crash. And yet, everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t we?
The urge to conform is immense. And that is why we are here in the world, because Jews never conform. You want to know how to fill a completely empty shul? Put a big sign outside saying, “No Jews admitted”. Do you know what I mean? They’ll storm the barriers, and the shul will be full. You know, the world says, “do this”, Jews do the other.
Tell me, do populations move from high civilisations to low, or from low civilisations to high? From low to high, from poor to rich. What was the supreme civilisation in Abraham’s day? Mesopotamia. Where is Abraham going? The opposite direction. What was the supreme civilisation in Moshe Rabbeinu’s day? Mitzrayim. He’s going in the opposite direction. When all the world is going that way, we go that way. To be a Jew is to be different. And the world needs people who are different, because otherwise people conform. And when people conform, they do things that are bad and that they know are bad. And therefore, you have to go into that society knowing that around you, in your office, at work, will be nine people out of ten who are living a lifestyle that cannot be your lifestyle. And you have to be strong enough to do it, and you will then be a blessing to them. If we are the same as the rest of the world, why does the world need you? Are you with me? We are there to be different. And that is my challenge. It’s not easy. Much easier to stay at home, ok? But the truth is, God is saying, go out there and create a home for My presence. And that’s what you have to do.
Speaker 7: [Inaudible question at 54:00 What is the best way to defend Israel and how do you see Israel as a light unto the nations when it’s not a perfect country?]
Rabbi Sacks: Look, let me be very blunt with you. There’s no general answer to that. Da ma shetashiv, it’s very contextual. And I would never give an answer in general, I have only to give an answer in particular. If I’m in an environment where people are very hostile to Israel, I have to spend enough time [inaudible at 49:40], you know, just to find out exactly where people are coming from… I can’t give you an answer that is right for every situation. I’ll just tell you the truth as I see it.
Number one, the State of Israel was not born after the Holocaust. The State of Israel was not born because of the United Nations vote on 29th November 1947. The State of Israel was not born because of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. The State of Israel was not born when the word ‘Zionism’ was first coined in the early 1890s. The State of Israel was born in the first syllables of Jewish time. “Lech lecha me’artzecha umimoladetecha umibeit avicha el ha’aretz asher ar’eka” (Bereishit 12:1). Seven times Hakadosh Baruch Hu promises Abraham Eretz Yisrael. The main people who oppose Jews in Israel today are either Christians of a certain kind, or Muslims. Christians and Muslims both recognise Avraham Avinu as the grandfather of their faith as well as our faith. And therefore, we have to say, in a world in which there are 125 countries in which the majority of the population is Christian, and there are 56 nations which are Muslim nations, in a world where there are so many nations that are Christian or Muslim, if that world does not have space for one tiny piece of land that is the world’s only Jewish state, what kind of world is this? What kind of Christians and Muslims are you, really? In what sense are you children of Abraham? In what sense do you really respect us, the people who stake our lives on being children of Abraham?
There are five or six problems confronting humanity. Not Israel, not the West, not the Middle East – humanity in the 21st century. Number one, climate change. Number two, asylum seekers. Number three, the growing gap within and between nations, between rich and poor. Number four, terror. Number five, asymmetric warfare of the Al-Qaeda kind that is spreading to Algeria, to Mali, etc. etc. And number six, the maintenance of democracy in parts of the world that have not had a long tradition of democracy. Those are the six major global problems that affect everyone in this world, and let’s take them one by one.
Climate change. Israel. Before the word Zionism was coined, in the 1860s, before anyone had heard of ecology, Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ was the first great book of the environmental movement, and that wasn’t published until 1947. In the 1860s, Hovevei Zion, the proto-Zionist movement was already planting trees in Israel. While the world is deforesting, Israel is reforesting – the first country in the world to take positive environmental measures. As a result, turning a barren and desolate landscape into a landscape of farms, forests, and fields.
Number two, asylum seekers. There are only two nations in the world made almost entirely out of asylum seekers. One is the United States of America, two is Eretz Yisrael. They have shown what it is, ‘e pluribus unum’, as it says in America, to take the many and make them one.
Number three, the growing economic gaps between rich and poor nations. A bare half century ago, Israel was a poor nation, a third-world economy with no natural resources except the ingenuity of its people. Today, Israel is one of the world’s leading hi-tech economies. There are more hi-tech startups in Israel than in any country in the world, except China and the United States: two little countries, one with 1.2 billion people, one with 300 million. And then there’s Israel, number three. There isn’t a single country in Europe – not France, not Britain, not Italy, not Germany – who has as many startup hi-tech industries as tiny, little Israel.
Number four, terror. The wall for which Israel has been castigated by the whole world is the only nonviolent solution to terror and suicide bombings the world has ever yet come up with.
Number five, asymmetric warfare. America to fight Al-Qaeda in Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc, etc, is using drone technology created, invented in Israel.
Number six, the maintenance of democracy in parts of the world that never knew it. Israel never was, and never could be, anything other than a democracy. I call Israel a hyper-democracy. I mean, you don’t only have the Knesset, you go into a taxi, you’re immediately in the middle of… you’re talking to Israel’s next prime minister. In other words, every one of the six problems facing humanity in the 21st century, Israel has confronted, Israel has done as much as any nation in the world to solve.
Therefore, Israel is a symbol of hope, not just to Jews but to all of humanity. It tells all of humanity that a country does not have to be big to be great. A country does not have to have many natural resources in order to become an economic leader. A country that never had a democracy can become one. And therefore, God forbid if you attack Israel, you are attacking hope.
Israel is a source of hope to the world, and we truly believe that if people would come here and see for themselves, if they would just open their ears, then they would not attack Israel. Instead, they would ask: how can the rest of the world become Israel?
Thank you very much.