Below is a list of the selected questions which Rabbi Sacks has chosen to answer.
Each of these recipients will receive an inscribed copy of the Koren Aviv Weekday Siddur. To read the weekly Covenant & Conversation: Family Edition, please click here.
Question from David, aged 7 from Arizona, USA: “After someone dies, why do we commemorate a yartzeit on the day the person died instead of celebrating their life on the day they were born?”
Rabbi Sacks responded: “Dear David, That’s a really good question. I believe that the answer is this:
When a person is born, and so long as they live, we don’t need memory. They are there to remind us. We have the reality. Memory is the antidote to absence. It’s the way we call to mind somebody that we can no longer see or meet in the flesh or really relate to. And the moment the need for this remembrance begins is the moment that they leave this life. So every year on the anniversary of that day, we light a candle and make a special effort to keep that memory alive. Because if a loved one is no longer here with us, the best thing we can do is to keep trying and striving to keep them alive in our hearts. I hope this helps.Thank you for your lovely question, and for being open to learning! B’vracha.”
Question from sister and brother, Hannah-Devorah & Shaiya Ben-Ami, aged 8 and 5, from Israel: “Why is it all women who protect and save Moses? Where are the men, Moses’ Abba and Aaron? What is it about women, and their relationship with Hashem, that enables them to have moral courage and act with ethics? They are heroes.”
Rabbi Sacks responded: “Well, you’re absolutely right, they really are heroes. There’s a deep answer and a pattern to be found here that we can all learn from.
There is nothing more powerful than the bond between mother and child. It is so strong, that it is the true source of all ethics in the universe. That is something that that goes to the very core of being.
You will never find courage like the courage of a mother for a child. And in fact that goes even beyond human beings. If you’ve ever seen any animal try to protect their young, it is almost always the mothers who show the most incredible and sacrificial courage. That is the courage that women have. And that’s what makes them very close to Hashem because they have the courage that comes from bringing life into the world. And that’s the thing that Hashem does for us too. He brings life into the world.
As for men, they have a different kind of courage. You see, when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, it was the women who usually did the gathering and generally the men did the hunting. Men had to show courage by fighting animals (to feed, and protect, everyone), and they historically also tended to have courage when it comes to fighting other human beings on the battlefield. And it takes an enormous amount of strength to stop men showing the courage that they show in war and in killing. So it’s a different kind of courage that we see as intrinsic in men’s behaviour in the past, and it is not a life-enhancing one, the way that women have courage. And that is why the key figures in the story of Moshe in Shemot, are women.
There are, in fact, SIX key female figures in the story of the Exodus, and if we look carefully we see that all six are involved in that moment of childhood and child birth. We have the courage of Moshe Rabbenu’s mother, Yocheved, who encouraged by her daughter Miriam, dares to have a child when Pharaoh has issued a decree that every male child should be killed. You have the courage of Shifra and Puah, the two midwives who defied Pharaoh’s explicit instructions when you told them to kill the male children, and they refused to do so. This is one of the most courageous acts in all of history.
Then you have the courage again of little Miriam, who went to see what was going to happen to her little baby brother, when he’d been set afloat on the water in a little ark. And it was Miriam, of course, who made sure that Moshe was brought up by his own real-life parents Amram and Yocheved.
And then there was the courage of Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya, who in defiance of her own father’s decree, adopted the young child and gave him the only name by which he is known. And then you have the sixth act of great bravery, which is the courage of Moshe Rabbenu’s wife, Zipporah. And this time the child she protects is not Moshe, but Moshe’s own son, when she gave him a brit milah in the desert.
So in all six cases, it has to do with courage in relation to a child. And that courage is the courage shown by women. So Hannah-Devorah and Shaiya Ben-Ami, I hope that explains things to you. And I think it’s very, very important that we recognise that women have a moral courage, which is very rare and very special, and which men all too often lack. And it is something for all of us to think about, because we need more of that courage in our world.
Thank you for your lovely and thoughtful question. B’vracha.”
Question from Noa, aged 11 from Perth, Australia: “Why is the Torah filled with stories of our forefathers who have bad relationships with their children? Why aren’t there stories with good relationships we can learn from?”
Rabbi Sacks responded: “Hi Noa, Thank you for your question, and what a great question it is! Human relationships are very complicated, and it seems like this is something that adults haven’t figured out how to deal with any better than children! Perhaps one of the most complicated relationships there is, is between a parent and their child. The Torah tries hard to present for us role models who are not perfect but inspire us by how they deal with all the exact same issues that we all have to deal with in our lives. Our forefathers are not perfect, and if they were , we would find it harder to relate to them and see them as models for our own lives – because we are far from perfect ourselves. When we read about the mistakes our forefathers made in their relationships and how they tried to remedy them we can learn lessons for own lives. Sometimes one has to read between the lines to see how the tensions in relationships in the Torah were resolved, but the stories in the Torah always have deep and profound lessons for our own lives if we are open to them. I hope that helps somewhat to answer your question.”
Question from Tsofia, aged 9 from London, UK: “In parsha Vayishlach, if Yaackov believed in Hashem why was he so scared? He obviously davened to him so that He could help him, but it sounds like he didn’t have emunah in Hashem.”
Rabbi Sacks responded: “Hi Tsofia, Thank you for your great question! We believe that while God does act in history and play a direct role in our lives in a direct way, He has also given humans room to act of their own freewill. In order to allow man to have freewill and choose how to act himself, God limits His role and withdraws somewhat from acting directly when we might think He would want to. This means that our lives can be impacted and influenced by many many factors at any one time, some of which are the actions of other people. Therefore, in any given situation, we must do our very best to ensure the outcome is what we believe is the best for us, based on our values and ethics. We believe that history is an interplay between God’s will and man’s will, and while we pray that God will help us to achieve what is the right outcome for us, it is not a Jewish approach to sit back and wait passively for God to take control. Judaism believes strongly in the principle “ein somchin al hanes” which means not sitting back and relying on a miracle – waiting passively for God’s intervention. Yaakov was very active in the story in Parshat Vayishlach, not at all passive. He took great efforts to make sure he was preparing for the outcome he wished to occur, but yet at the same time prayed to God for help in achieving this, if it was in fact the ideal outcome (as sometimes we need to pray to God to ask for help in making the right decision, as well as in achieving the outcome of our decisions). I hope that helps somewhat to answer your question.”
Question from Sadie, aged 12 from Sydney, Australia: “My question for Rabbi Sacks is that if someone makes someone feel good only for money or for their own good and they never do any good that doesn’t benefit themselves is it still better then not doing any good?”
Rabbi Sacks responded: “Hi Sadie, The Talmud (Pesachim 8a) says that someone who gives money to charity in the belief that this will help cure his son who is ill, or make him worthy of life in the world to come, is “perfectly righteous,” even though he is doing it for reasons of self-interest. Why is this so? Because whatever his motive, he is actually doing good to the person who receives the gift – and that counts! Also because we believe that even though someone may do the right thing for the wrong reason, if he or she makes a habit of it, he will eventually come to do it for the right reason (Pesachim 3b). I hope this helps. Thank you for your lovely question! Blessings and best wishes.”
Question from Akiva, aged 12 from Bet Shemesh, Israel: “Rabbi Sacks, you started off by saying, “Mankind becomes wicked and this leads to God bringing a Flood and starting over”. If that’s the case and Hashem loves all his creations, then why did Hashem choose to destroy it? Is love conditional in the eyes of Hashem?”
Rabbi Sacks responded: “God loves us all, but He asks us to love, or at least not harm, the universe He created, and especially other humans, whom He created in His image and whom He also loves. So, out of love for humanity, He sometimes punishes those who harm humanity – and that was true of everyone except Noah and his family in the generation of the Flood. Not even God can love those who harm those He loves. I hope this helps. Thank you for your excellent question! Blessings and best wishes.”
Question from Channi, aged 15 from London, UK: “What was the point of the world before Adam and Chava were taken out of Gan Eden? Because God created the world so that humans have free choice to choose whether to do right and wrong and to then gain internal pleasure in the next world (Olam Haba). But if in Gan Eden everything was given to them what was the point of it?”
Rabbi Sacks responded: “When we are very young, our parents give us all we need. They protect us. They watch over us. That is because we are too young to do these things for ourselves. But our parents also want us to grow up, and learn to do things for ourselves. Which is why they give us a certain measure of freedom, so that we will learn and grow and accept responsibility and eventually become adults like them. They do this, even though they know we will sometimes make mistakes – because we can’t really learn without making mistakes, and we can’t really grow without the freedom to make mistakes. Gan Eden was like childhood, and Adam and Chava were like children. But Hashem did not want them to stay children forever, so he gave them freedom. And yes, they made mistakes, and that meant that they lost their home in Gan Eden. That is what it is to grow up. But we believe that Hashem has still left us some back doors that open onto Gan Eden. One is called Shabbat. Another is called love. Another is called marriage. So we don’t have to wait for Olam Haba to find Gan Eden. But we do have to lose it, in order to grow up enough to learn how to find it again. I hope this helps. Thank you for a really good question! Blessings and best wishes.”