In 2011, in advance of Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of Repentance and Yom Kippur, the Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks recorded a series of ten short videos, each reflecting on a particular theme or prayer pertinent to this special and spiritual period in the Jewish calendar.
To read the transcripts, please scroll down beyond the videos.
The one word that can change your life
Don’t get angry… there’s a better way
The holy place… is where you are
To be free you have to learn to forgive
When God sheds a tear…
How do you live? By not taking life for granted
Where our speaking… meets God’s listening
Undoing the knots we tie ourselves into
The courage to hope is sometimes the greatest courage of all
Where will we find God?
1. The one word that can change your life – Preparing for the New Year
That’s the sound of selichot. Of saying sorry. The special prayers we say at this time of the year as we come close to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement. And there’s something so powerful about the ability to say sorry. Out there in secular society we live in a non penitential culture. When was the last time you heard a politician say, “I’m sorry”? Or a Rabbi, say, “I got it wrong”? Or a pundit say, “I made a mistake.” Yet we’re always getting things wrong. That’s what it is to be human.
So, to be able to say, “I’m sorry, I was wrong, forgive me,” is important. It’s a moment of honesty in a lifetime of keeping up appearances; of trying to look infallible. And I can say sorry to God because I know He forgives me. I know that because that’s the kind of God He is. That’s why He gave us Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
So try saying sorry to God. It might just help you, as it’s helped me, say sorry to the people I’ve hurt. Saying sorry is the superglue of interpersonal life. It mends relationships that would otherwise be broken beyond repair. You won’t be sorry that you said, “I’m sorry.” Shanah Tovah.
2. Don’t get angry…there’s a better way – Preparing for the New Year
Berogez rachem tizkor. In wrath remember mercy. So we pray when we say selichot or tachanun. And what a line that is. Did you ever lose your temper with someone, say something in anger you shouldn’t have said? Did you ever make someone cry? There’s something about anger that makes it the most destructive of the emotions.
Maimonides said that in most things follow the middle way but not in anger. Even a little bit of anger is bad news for you and those around you. They used to say about one of the Lubavitcher Rebbes that whenever he felt as if he were about to be angry he’d get out several volumes of Talmud and jewish law and look up if it were permissible to be angry on such an occasion; and by the time he’d done all that research how could he be angry any more? Berogez rachem tizkor. In the coming year, when you feel angry, that’s the time to remember mercy. Kindness achieves what anger never can. Shanah Tovah.
3. The holy place…is where you are
4. To be free…you have to learn to forgive – Preparing for the New Year
Chamur lema’asecha. Have compassion on your works. Forgive. That’s what we say on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the days between. But it cuts both ways. We can’t ask God to forgive us if we don’t forgive others.
We have to forgive those who’ve offended us, however hard it is, because life is too short to feel resentment. Lo tikkom velo titor, says the Torah. Don’t bear a grudge and don’t take revenge.
At the end of his life, Moses said to the Israelites, “Don’t despise an Egyptian, because you were strangers in his land.” Strangers in his land? They persecuted the Israelites, enslaved them, tried to kill half their children. Don’t despise them? They were despicable. But what Moses was saying was: if you continue to hate, you will still be slaves: slaves to the past and your resentment. If you want to be free you have to let go of hate.
And that’s still true. Our energies are too precious to waste on a past we can’t undo. No one can offend me without my permission, and I refuse to give bad people the victory of knowing I care about what they say or do. On these holy days, we have to let go of hate. We have to forgive. And we will then travel lighter through life, with less grief, more joy. Shanah Tovah.
5. When God sheds a tear…
Avinu Malkeinu. Our Father our King. You know who composed that prayer? Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud says, that once, no rain fell. There was a drought. People were suffering. The Rabbis ordained a fast. Rabbi Eliezer, a very distinguished Rabbi, prayed 24 prayers but nothing happened. Then Rabbi Akiva stepped forward and said: Avinu Malkeinu, our Father our King. Ein lanu melech ela atah. We have no King but You. And the rain fell. Can you imagine this?
Here is a simple Jew, Rabbi Akiva, who couldn’t even read Hebrew until he was grown up. And he looks up to heaven and says: God, we are small and You are vast, we are nothing and You are everything, but Tatele, Abba, Avinu, You are our Father. Who else do we have in the whole universe but You?
And I believe at that moment, God Himself shed a tear and that was the rain that fell. Avinu Malkeinu. All we have is you. Shanah Tovah.
6. How do you learn to live? By not taking life for granted.
Zachreinu lachayim. Remember us for life. It was more than forty years ago. We were on our honeymoon and we were passing through a little Italian town called Paestum. It has some roman ruins, and a lovely beach, and that morning, a glittering, heartbreakingly beautiful sea. The problem was: I couldn’t swim. But as I looked I saw people were standing hundreds of yards into the water and it still only came up to their knees. So, thinking it was safe, I walked out hundreds of yards and sure enough the water came up to my knees.
Then I started walking back to the shore, and suddenly I found myself out of my depth. I’d walked into a dip in the sea-bed. No one was close. I was about to drown. And as I went under for the fifth time I remember thinking, “What’s the Italian for help?” and “What a way to begin a honeymoon.”
Someone saved me. How? Who? I never knew. By then I was more or less unconscious. But this I have known ever since: Every day is a gift from God. When we know that and feel it in our bones, that’s when we really live. Shanah Tovah.
7. Where our speaking meets God’s listening
Bilvavi mishkan evneh. A lovely poem about prayer itself, written by Rabbi Eliezer Azikri, one of the mystics in Tzfat in the late sixteenth century. “In my heart I will build a temple to God’s glory. In it, I’ll built an altar, lit by the fire of Abraham’s love, and as a sacrifice, I offer to God my one and only soul.”
Prayer is the language of faith, and the prayerbook is the map of the Jewish mind. The song we sing to God is the music of the Jewish soul, and somehow in time beyond time and space beyond space, our finitude meets God’s infinity and we are brushed by the wings of the Shechinah, the Divine Presence.
Don’t expect it to happen every time, or all at once, for there is no human understanding without time and study. Yet it is there in our prayers, written by our ancestors as they strove to find the words that would reach out toward the unsayable, like a message transmitted to some distant star.
And there you will find the mystery of Jewish spirituality that turned our ancestors, a tiny and otherwise undistinguished people, into a nation that defied the laws of history and out-lasted all the world’s great empires. Prayer is the place where speaking meets God’s listening, and in ways we will never understand, we are transformed. Shanah Tovah.
8. Undoing the knots we tie ourselves into
Kol Nidre. Was there ever a stranger prayer to capture the imagination of serious minds? It isn’t poetry but prose. It isn’t even a prayer. It’s a dry, legal formula for the annulment of vows. The first time we hear about it is in the eighth century, and already great Rabbis are against it. “Can you annul vows that easily? Is this what we should be doing on the holiest night of the year?”
Yet it outlasted all its critics, defied its opponents, and remains one of the best-known and most evocative of all the passages in the prayer book. Why?
I suspect because it’s what teshuvah is all about. Like rash vows, like thoughtless words, we do things we know we shouldn’t. And on this night of nights, we look back at the mess we’ve sometimes made of our lives, the people we’ve hurt, the mistakes we’ve made, the deeds we should never have done, and say: God, Kulhon icharatna lehon. We regret them all. And if regret can undo a vow, let it undo a deed. Give us the strength to make amends and begin again, a little wiser this time, a little less brash, a little more understanding and patient and humble. Help me undo, kol nidrei, ve-esarei, ushevu’ai, all the knots I have tied myself into, and let my life become simple and honest and kind again. Shanah Tovah.
9. The courage to hope is sometimes the greatest courage of all
Unetaneh Tokef is a prayer of intense drama. The world is a courtroom. The books of life and death are open. God is the Judge. The shofar sounds, the angels tremble, the court is in session. And we are on trial, awaiting the verdict. Who will live and who will die. What will be our fate in the year to come?
Yet this we believe: that no fate is final. Uteshuvah utefillah utzedakah ma’avirin et roah hagzerah. Repentance prayer and charity have the power to avert the evil decree. Two great cultures between them shaped the civilisation of the west: Ancient Greece andAancient Israel. Athens and Jerusalem. Two different approaches to life.
The Greeks believed in moira, ananke, blind, inexorable fate. What will be will be, whatever we choose. And the more we try to avoid it, the more we make it happen. Out of this belief came great drama, the Greek gift to the world. Its name is tragedy.
Judaism said no. It isn’t true. Fate is not final. The decree has not been sealed. God has given us the one gift that redeems life from tragedy, the gift of freedom.
We can choose. We can change. We can act differently next time. We can make sure the future is not an endless replay of the past. And as for the past, if we acknowledge it, God forgives. Out of that faith came the one word with the power to redeem life from tragedy. The word tikvah. Hope.
Jews lost many things in the course of history: their land, their home, their city Jerusalem, their holy of holies, the Temple; sometimes they lost their lives. But never did they lose their hope. Jews kept hope alive, and hope kept the Jewish people alive.
And if you were to ask me what difference faith makes, I would say: faith is the ability to know the worst and yet remain committed to the best, to know how cruel life can be and yet never ever to despair. Faith is the courage to hope. Shanah Tovah.
10. Where will we find God?
Remember us for life, King who delights in life. And write us in the Book of Life, for Your sake, God of life. People have said odd things about Jews, that we seek power or success or wealth or fame. Truth is that in the hour of truth, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews only ever asked God for one thing. Life.
“Choose life,” said Moses. “Sanctify life,” says the Torah. Celebrate life, says Kohelet. When we make a brachah, Judaism teaches us gratitude for life. When we keep Shabbat we learn to appreciate the blessings of life. When we give tzedakah or do an act of chessed or give hospitality to those who’d otherwise be alone, we enhance other people’s life. And if there is one thing I’ve noticed about Jews, it’s their appetite for life, their passion for life. Judaism is a sustained discipline in the art of life. And that’s where we find God: in the joy, the wonder, the miracle and mystery of life. God: in the year to come please bless our life so that we can make a blessing of our life. Write us in the Book of Life. Shanah Tovah.
“Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a kind of clarion call, a summons to the Ten Days of Penitence which culminate in the Day of Atonement… Yom Kippur is the supreme moment of Jewish time, a day of fasting and prayer, introspection and self-judgement. At no other time are we so sharply conscious of standing before God, of being known.”