On Sunday 13th November 2016, Rabbi Sacks delivered the opening plenary keynote address at the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly in Washington DC. His speech focused on the concept of a Jewish journey, what it has meant throughout history and why it remains so important today with everything else going on in the world. The introductory remarks in this video are from Cynthia and David Shapira, the co-chairs of the 2016 JFNA GA.
Friends, thank you for leaving your notes. I just think I’ll forget my speech and say that last one again.
Beloved friends, it’s so great to be with you. And behalf of all of us, I would like to express our thanks to the driving spirit and CEO of JFNA, Jerry Silverman. An enormous vote of thanks to the chairman of the board of trustees, Richard Sandler. And I wanna say to these wonderful, incredible co-chairs of this GA, Cynthia and David Shapira, forget about me inspiring you, it is you who have inspired us.
But really, my thanks to all of you at JFNA, the organisation that touches and changes more Jewish lives than any other in the world.
Chevra [Friends], you and I, we have work to do. You see, the trouble is, since we last met, the world has gone mad. I thought in Britain, we had something called Brexit, which I claimed was the most divisive campaign in the world. But what can I do? I have to concede that, as with the Olympic Games, we just have to settle for second place.
You have just had a presidential election, which, dare I say it, is almost as acrimonious as a synagogue board meeting. Not quite, but almost there.
And meanwhile, we have seen in the rest of the world the return of antisemitism, the rise of the far right in Europe, in France, in Austria, in Hungary, in Poland, and in Greece. We have seen whole countries, whole swathes of the Earth’s surface, not just in Syria, but in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya, Somalia, in Yemen, in South Sudan, descending into what Thomas Hobbs called “the war of every man against every man, in which life is nasty, brutish, and short.” We have seen Russia turn aggressive, Iran become ever more dangerous.
The world is in a state of crisis. What the Jews do when the world is in a state of crisis? Never forget, never waste a crisis. We have a precious moment. Let me explain.
Let me explain, all those years ago when I used to be Chief Rabbi, I used to travel around the British Commonwealth, what used to be called the British Empire, so I used to go to Hong Kong. “In ’97, the Chinese said, “Please, could we have our Hong Kong back?” And so I still kept on there.
I went there and met, for the first time, the Beijing appointee, the governor of Hong Kong, Mr. Tung Chee-hwa. And we had a wonderful conversation. He loves Jews. He said to me, “Rabbi Sacks, we Chinese and you Jews go back a long way.” He said, “We Chinese go back 5,000 years. You Jews go back 6,000 years. What I want to know, Rabbi Sacks is, what did you do for the first 1,000 years before you had kosher Chinese takeaways?” I said, “Mr. Tung, you want to know what we did for the first 1,000 years? We complained about the food.”
But do you know why it is that China lasted so long? Because the Chinese ideogram for crisis also means opportunity. And when a country and a civilisation sees a crisis as an opportunity, it is not derailed, it is energised by crisis.
Now, there is only one language I know that goes one better than Chinese, and that is Hebrew. Anyone know what the Hebrew word for crisis is? It is mashber. Now, do you know what the word mashber originally meant? It meant a birthing stool. Every crisis, for Jews, is chevlei leida, something new is being born.
And that is why, when crises happen, we as Jews have to lead the world to a better place, and that is the challenge I want us to accept, individually and as a people.
And how do we do it? The answer is in the theme of this conference, by starting, each one of us, individually and collectively, a Jewish journey, a Jewish journey that will help change us and help change the world.
What is a Jewish journey? The answer is contained in the opening words of the parsha, of the portion of the Torah we read just yesterday in our synagogues, the first recorded syllables of Jewish time, when God says to Abraham and Sarah, Lech lecha, “Begin a journey, get thee out,” me’artzecha umimoladetecha umibeit avicha “From your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house.” And so began the world’s oldest, longest, and greatest journey of all, and we have to move on that journey to the next stage.
What do we learn from those words to Abraham and Sarah at the beginning of Jewish time? Three things.
Number one, uniquely Judaism begins with a journey. With two journeys. With Abraham’s journey from Mesopotamia, and with Moses and the Israelites’ journey from Egypt.
Why? Because we are the people who can’t stand still. Did you ever see a group of Jews standing still? It never happened. We know that we have to move, and we have to lead from the front.
And that has defined Jewish sensibility from that day to this, because where others accept, we protest. Where others curse the darkness, we light a flame. Where others live with the world that is, we strive for the world that ought to be.
To be a Jew is to help heal a broken world. We are the people who don’t stand still. We are the people for whom life is a journey to a world of justice and compassion and healing, which is not yet, but which we will not cease until we help bring it about. And that is the first thing we learn from Abraham and Sarah, that we as people have to journey and travel and grow.
Second thing, Lech lecha. What do those words literally mean? We translate them as Get thee out, leave. But the Chasidim pointed out that the words Lech lecha literally mean, “Get to yourself.” Become the person that you really are. Have the courage to be different. Have the courage to do the Jewish deed. The really great Jews are the ones who are unashamed to be Jews and to do the Jewish deed.
Think of the people we have recently lost, but who will be remembered for decades to come. Leonard Cohen, who taught the whole world to sing Hallelujah. Baruch Hashem, most of us sing it a little better than he did, but Leonard Cohen taught the world to sing Hallelujah. Elie Wiesel, who taught the world to remember what so many wanted to forget. Shimon Peres, who taught the world that a Jew never stops searching for peace, however long the road, and however hard the way.
They were unafraid to stand up and be proud as Jews, and if there is one thing I have learned from decades in public life, it is: Non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism. Every one of us is an ambassador for our people and our faith, and when we are true to ourselves, we are a blessing to the world. When we are what we uniquely are, we give the world what only we can give, and that is the second message. Be true to ourselves.
And the third message has to do with the politics of the world. The world is moving into a new and dangerous phase that I call the politics of anger. And the politics of anger comes from where? It comes from fear. And we, as a people, are uniquely poised to show the world the one antidote to fear, which is the greatest Jewish gift to humanity as a whole, the gift of hope. Israel is the country whose very national anthem is Hatikvah, meaning “The Hope.”
What makes people despair? Let me tell you what makes people despair. We think to ourselves, “How can I change the world? How can I make a difference? There’s only one of me, there’s seven billion people out there. I am no more than a wave in the ocean, than a grain of sand on the seashore, than dust on the surface of infinity.””
But I want you to think of this: Tell me, who is the most influential human being who ever lived? To be honest, there’s only one candidate, and that is Abraham, because today, literally or metaphorically, the people who consider Abraham to be their ancestor in faith are 2.4 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, and a few of us, most of whom happen to be in this room today. But what we lack in numbers, we more than make up for in noise.
Chevra [Friends], this one individual, or these two individuals, Abraham and Sarah, think about it, they ruled no empire, they commanded no army, they performed no miracles, they delivered no prophecies. All they did was heed the call of lech lecha to begin a Jewish journey, and to define for all time what it is to be a Jew.
And these are what we learned from Abraham and Sarah: To be a Jew is to be true to your faith, and a blessing to others, regardless of their faith. And that is the greatest message of healing that the world needs to hear in the 21st century, and we have to deliver it.
Friends, that was all I was going to say, until I suddenly realised there’s one thing, in addition, I probably ought to say.
Tell me, when you’re looking at journeys – you know how long it took us to get out of the station in Washington today? – everyone’s going one way, right? Now, tell me, are there more people queuing in America to go to Iraq, or queuing in Iraq to go to America? Where do people travel? They travel from poor countries to rich ones. They travel from low civilisations to high civilisations. What was the highest civilisation in the days of Abraham? Mesopotamia, Ur Kasdim, where he came from. Everyone else is trying to get in, he’s leaving with Sarah. What was the highest civilisation in the days of Moses and the Israelites? Answer, the Egypt of Ramses the Second. Everyone else is trying to enter, Moses and the Israelites are trying to leave.
We are the world’s contrarians. Everyone’s going that way, we’re going the other way. So let me make a simple suggestion. You know as well as I do, that when the world is united, Jews are divided, right? Now the world is divided, let us do the opposite thing and show that we are united.
And I wanna tell you, it begins here in JFNA because you are the group who welcome every Jew, who respect every Jew, who honour every Jew, and let it start from here.
But I want to add one more thing. Listening to the panel, hearing about your fears about antisemitism, which I share with you, I have to say this: for Heaven’s sake, if we are seeing antisemitism in the world, let us fight it together. Let us never be guilty of having antisemitism in here.
Let us, if some people in the world don’t like us, let us respond by showing that we love one another. Let us be at peace with one another if we want to be at peace with the world, because I tell you, I tell you this from the depth of my heart, when Jews stand together, no force on Earth can ever prevail against us.
That is the Jewish challenge in these challenging times. Number one: let each of us undertake our own Jewish journey. Number two: let us do the Jewish deed and be proud to be Jews. And number three: let us remember that we can change the world the way Abraham and Sarah changed the world.
Because if we truly believe that nefesh echad k’olam maleh, that one life is like an entire universe, then all you have to do is change one life, and you’ve begun to change the universe the only way we can, one life at a time, one day at a time, one act at a time.
So when, out there, there is despair, let us bring hope. When out there there is hurt, let us heal. And when out there is division, let us show that we are enlarged and not diminished by our differences. Let us show the world what it is to stand together and respect one another.
Therefore, I say this, never waste a crisis. Never stand still. Go out there, continue the Jewish journey, and be a blessing to the Jewish people, and to the world.