Taking Pride in our Judaism

London Encounter Conference 1999

Published 28 November 1999
the encounter conference opening keynote address

On 28th November 1999, Rabbi Sacks delivered the opening keynote address at the Encounter Conference at the Institute of Education in London.

The audio and transcript we have are currently incomplete, and we welcome any readers who may have the full version to contact us.

Dayan Ehrentreu, Rabbanim, ladies and gentlemen,

My congratulations also to all those who have organised this magnificent conference. It’s a tremendous achievement and one that gives me and – I hope – gives you a great deal of hope for the great things that are actually happening in our community.

Rabbi Levy, you spoke about a shamas, which is my c’est mon métier, it’s my role in life, because a shamas, as you know, also means the Shul caretaker, which is the highest aspiration of a chief rabbi. And I love the story they tell about the shul on Yom Kippur, where the rabbi was so overwhelmed with the emotions of the day that in the middle of Musaf, he got up and he said, Ribbono Shel Olam, ich bin a gornisht, Almighty, I’m a nothing. And the president of the shul, seized by this religious passion, got up and said, Ribbono Shel Olam, ich bin a gornisht, Almighty, I’m also a nothing. And the shamas felt the same wave of emotion, got up and said, Ribbono Shel Olam, ich bin a gornisht. And the rabbi and the president looked at the shamas and said, look who’s calling himself a gornisht.

In Judaism, to be a nothing is to be a something. And that, I think, is the theme of my talk this morning, to be proud of what we are.

I want to begin this Encounter with another encounter, an encounter we read about yesterday in the sedra of Vayishlach, surely the most remarkable, the most enigmatic, the most potent encounter in the whole Torah, Jacob’s wrestling match. Vayivater Yaakov levado – And Jacob was left alone at night. Vayei’avek ish imo ad alot hashachar – And there wrestled a man with him until the break of dawn.

This is a puzzling passage, and yet you and I know it is also a vitally important passage, because it is the encounter in which we, the Jewish people, get our name – our name, Yisrael, Israel, ki sarita im Elokim v’im anashim vatuchal, We are the people, Israel, who wrestle with God and with man and prevail.

What was the meaning of that encounter? We can’t know for sure. What we do know is this, that it was an extremely difficult encounter. After it, V’hu tzole’a al yerecho, after it, Jacob was limping. We even know that Jacob felt his very existence was at stake. He says, Ki ra’iti Elokim panim el panim vatinatzel nafshi, I saw God face to face and my life was saved.

Evidently, he felt he had been in a moment of great crisis. And yet, immediately after that crisis, he is able to face his brother Esau, as he has not been able to do for twenty-two years, face him with equanimity. So that they met and they embraced, and they exchanged greetings, and each went on his own separate way, in peace. Vayavo Yaakov shalem, And Jacob came through it whole. It is a very, very obscure passage, and we see this if we ask even the simplest of questions: With whom was Jacob wrestling? With whom? The Torah says, Vayei’avek ish imo, It was a man. The prophet Hosea in yesterday’s haftarah says it was a malach, an angel. The Sages say it was Saro shel Esav, the guardian angel of Esau. Jacob himself thought it was God. Ra’iti Elokim panim el panim. There are many, many commentators. Every generation adds its own new understanding. Surely each of them contains an aspect of the truth. Surely that is what we mean by calling Torah an eitz chaim hee, a living tree. Every year a living tree adds new leaves. Every year a living Torah adds new interpretations.

And so, this morning, I want to add one of my own. What do we know about this encounter? We know this: that it is about identity. And the reason we know it is about identity is because after it, Jacob acquires a new name in a way unparalleled anywhere else in the Torah. A new name that is not just the changing or the addition of a letter; the way Avram became Avraham, or the way Sarai became Sarah, or the way Hoshea ben Nun became Yehoshua. This was not a mere minor change. This was a total transformation. Yaakov became Yisrael. He acquired a new name and therefore a new identity. And therefore, the question we have to ask is: What was Jacob’s identity beforehand? What was he until that moment?

[The remainder of the transcript is not currently available, although we are actively search for the full transcript so that we can create a full version.]