Highlights of Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks Midnight Selichot Service Address. Filmed on Motzei Shabbat 24th September 2011 at the Western Marble Arch Synagogue. The service included music from the Shabbaton Choir with Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld and Chazan Jonny Turgel.
When bad things happen to us, God forbid, there are three possible responses. Number one, we can suffer. Number two, we can endure. But the real call of teshuvah is number three, we can grow.
In Judaism, we recognise that bad things really are bad things. It is part of Judaism’s greatness that it never said otherwise, that it never saw the world through tinted glasses. The Mishnah says k’shem shemevorchim al hatov, kach mevorchim al hara – just as we make a brachah over the good, so we make a brachah over the bad, but it never confused the two. It isn’t the same blessing. Over the good we say shehechiyanu or hatovah hameitiv. Over the bad we say Baruch Dayan Emet. We never tried to use religion to mitigate the pain of suffering and of loss.
When bad things happen, we suffer. That is the first level. However, there is a second response, profoundly too, which is: despite all the suffering, we endure.
I used to ask myself, what is the greatness of Yaakov Avine, the third of our patriarchs. He did not do what Avraham was called to do. Leave his land, his birthplace, his father’s house and travel to an unknown destination. Number two, Yaakov was not Yitzchak. Not called on to do what Yitzchak had to do. Risk his very life as a possible sacrifice.
What was Yaakov’s greatness? And then I thought to myself, that extraordinary answer he gives to Pharaoh when Pharaoh asks, how old are you? And he says, ma’at vera’im hayu yamay shnay chayai – few and evil have been the days of my life. [Gen. 47:9] Of course, he was 130 years old. We should all have such few days. But I suddenly realised the depth of those words. What was Jacob’s greatness? Jacob was a survivor. And his children became a nation of survivors. The greatest survivors the world has ever known. The people who have survived every evil that the world could throw at them and never gave in, never gave up, never despaired. That is the second response. To survive. To endure. To keep going.
But there is a third response, and this is the real response of teshuvah. Almost the very first time we actually hear people doing teshuvah in the Bible is when Joseph’s brothers come before him in Egypt and they don’t recognise him and things start going wrong. He starts accusing them of being spies. He takes one of them and puts him in prison, and they are bewildered. Why is this happening? And then they say words, which are, if you listen carefully, very similar to the Vidui we do at the end of selichot Aval – truly – ashaymim anachnu – We are guilty – Al kein ba’ah aylaynu hatzarah hazot – That is why this bad thing is happening to us. [Gen. 42:21]
If you read the biblical story carefully, it’s when a transition begins to take place in them, especially in Yehudah. The first time we see Yehudah in the Joseph story, he is a man prepared to sell his brother, Joseph, as a slave. The last time we see him is as the man who is willing himself to suffer slavery so that his brother can go free. That is a ba’al teshuvah. Somebody to whom something bad happens and who doesn’t merely suffer, doesn’t merely endure, but uses that suffering to grow.
Lehavdil, the people from whom I have learned more than anyone else these last 20 years are the Holocaust survivors. Did they suffer? More than any of us will ever know. Did they endure? Yes. With a strength beyond belief. But was that all? In their old age, one after another started going out to schools. Telling their stories. Educating a new generation, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, how to fight hatred, how to combat intolerance, how to cherish freedom and never take it for granted. They took all their pain and turned it into greatness.
Friends, why am I saying this? We pray otherwise, but I have a suspicion that 5772 is not going to be an easy year. Not easy for us, not easy for Israel and not easy for the world. The Middle East is in turmoil. Israel is in embattled on all sides. The European economy needs a refuah shleimah. And I have to tell you something. It’s a simple piece of investment advice. When share prices are depressed and the economy is stagnant, that is the time to invest in ruchnius, in spirituality. It’s got a lot more growth potential than the gashmius.
Therefore if, God forbid, bad things happen in this coming year, let us take those bad things and use them to grow. Let us learn. Let us daven more. Let us keep more. If Israel finds itself in difficulties, that will be the time for each of us to deepen our connection with it. Friends, the greatness of Jacob, whose children we are, the greatness of Yehudah, whose name as Yehudim we bear, the greatness of the Holocaust survivors, the greatness of people like Abraham and Israel, is that they took the bad and turned it into good. They took every blow of fate as an angel saying “grow”. That is teshuvah. That is the real teshuvah out of which even pain we, every one of us, can achieve greatness.
In these coming days, in this coming year, may Hashem not make us need this idea. May He bless us with good and with health and with peace. But if, God forbid, difficult moments happen to any of us, know that that is God calling on us to grow. And helping us every inch of the way. In the coming year, may Hashem give us the strength to grow. And may He write each of us in the Book of Life.