Terror, by defeating others, ultimately defeats itself, while the memory of those who offered kindness to strangers lives on

Published 5 December 2008
ThoughtForTheDay 20200515 RabbiLordSacks mp3 image 1
Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 5th December 2008

On Wednesday night we in the Jewish community held our memorial service for the victims of terror in Mumbai. And in the midst of remembering them all, from so many faiths, we spoke about two in particular, the young rabbi and his wife, Gavriel and Rivkah Holzberg, with whom many of us felt a special connection.

Like the biblical Abraham and Sarah long ago, they had left their home, their birthplace and their families to go to a distant land, to offer hospitality to strangers, food to the hungry and a bed to those with nowhere else to go.

I never met the Holtzbergs but I knew that they and I had been inspired by the same man, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, one of the great Jewish leaders of the twentieth century. He’d done what no Jew had ever done before: sent emissaries around the world to do what the Holtzbergs did, open their doors and hearts to strangers.

For years I wondered why. What moved him to embark on this extraordinary mission? And then I understood. Rabbi Schneersohn, a Jewish mystic, believed in the idea of tikkun, that by our acts we can redeem a fractured world, and rescue fragments of divine light from the heart of human darkness.

But he had lived through the Holocaust, in which the entire world of the Jewish mystics of eastern Europe was destroyed. How do you redeem evil of that magnitude? That was when I caught a glimpse of what I believe he had in mind. If the Nazis had hunted down every Jew in hate, he would send his disciples to search out every Jew in love. And the tragedy of Mumbai tells us how much work we still have to do.

Almost exactly a year ago Elaine and I went to India for the first time, to spend time with the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Muslims and others, to share the wisdom of our several traditions, and experience that wonderful Sikh custom, so like that of the Holtzbergs, of langar, hospitality to strangers. And there in Amritsar, the city at whose heart is a golden temple, I found other people doing in their faiths what Rabbi Schneersohn had done in his: reaching out in love.

Were we all wrong? Does terror show that openness is mere vulnerability? No. Love still heals. Goodness still redeems. Terror, by defeating others, ultimately defeats itself, while the memory of those who offered kindness to strangers lives on.