Chief Rabbi’s 11th Annual Ellul Lecture at LSJS

Rabbi Sacks had a tradition, to deliver a pre-Rosh Hashanah shiur every year at the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS).

This Ellul shiur (lecture), which was his 11th as Chief Rabbi, was delivered and recorded in September 2011.

Mekorot (sources) are embedded within the video and will be shown on screen.

For an alternative to the video, you can also listening to the same shiur, with this link to the audio recording

Friends, may I wish all of you a G’mar Chatimah Tovah, may it be a really good year for you, for your families, for the Jewish people throughout the world, especially for the people of Israel in the State of Israel, we pray it should be a year of blessing and a peace, Amen. Can I just say thank you on all our behalfs to Dr. Rafi Zarum and Dr. Tamra Gamse for the… right Wright, (sorry)...


It's wonderful, you know, I come here to accumulate evermore sins to confess on Yom Kippur. Tamra, will you forgive me? Thank you, there we are, there’s an I-thou encounter. Friends, to thank Tamra and Rafi for their wonderful programmes, but in particular, can I say how good the building is looking these days and for that, I think we have to thank Geoff Abrahams who’s done a wonderful, wonderful job. And Geoff, can he hear?

Dr. Rafi Zarum:

I'll pass it on.

Rabbi Sacks:

Would you please pass on, you know, you know, just tell him we, we were most impressed and it's lovely. And may you have a year of learning and the joy of learning, Amen.

Friends? I don't know if you noticed, we did a new machzor this year. And so, you know, I'll tell you what happens. It's, you know, mitzvah goreres mitzvah. In 2000 and whenever it was, we brought out a new siddur and the first comment everyone said was, “nu, and what about the machzor?” So we finally got round to the machzor, now everyone says, but what about Yom Kippur? So, we're working on it, and that is the nature of the shiur I want to share with you, because it is when you do a machzor or a siddur that you discover stuff that you didn't notice before, you discover mistranslations, commentaries that are not quite right and so on and so forth.

For instance, did you ever notice in the old Singer's Prayer Book, it used to say in the Prayer for the State of Israel, it used to wish tzahal, veyishlach bracha vehatzlachah bechol ma’aseh yedeihem, the English, and it was said in English was, “send blessing and prosperity to the work of their hands,” as if tzahal were an investment bank. You don't actually wish an army prosperity, you wish them success. But apparently for all those years, for 15 years, nobody noticed this. it was absolutely extraordinary. I don’t know if I ever mentioned to you the change in translation of the Yekum Purkan, did I mention this to you? Here it is, and this is the measure of the change that has taken place in British Jewry. Yekum Purkan includes among other things, a prayer for zara chaya vekayama, for healthy children, zara di loh yifsok vedi loh yivtol mipisgamei oraisa, what does that mean, anyone know?

I’ll tell you though, loh yifsok veloh yivtol mipisgamei oraisa, means, children who never stop learning. But nobody could understand that in Anglo Jewry, because you know, who was into Jewish day schools and learning? What did you have a Rav for? The Rav learned, you didn't need to learn. So, for over a hundred years, Yekum Purkan, the translation was, “children who do not neglect nor break with any of the words of this law.” In other words, it was about kiyum hamitzvot, it was about fulfilling mitzvahs, not about learning. So in the 2006 green Singer’s Prayer Book, we translated it correctly. Children who will neither cease nor interrupt learning. And do you know how many people noticed? Nobody? So, <laugh> so there you are, it's, you know, in case you ever take yourself too seriously. So, let us look at one of the famous piyutim that we say on Kol Nidrei night, it's a famous piyut, which goes, here's the first source, ki hinei kachomer beyad hayotzer right? It is like, “we are like clay in the hands of the potter,” birtzoso marchiv, birtzoso mekatzer, “as he wishes, he makes it big or he makes it small,” ken anachnu beyadecha, “so we are in your hands,” chessed notzer et cetera, et cetera, labris habet v’al tefen layetzer, ”look to the covenant and do not look to the accuser.”

Now, this is the translation in most Machzorim and most meforshim, right. So, oh sorry, you didn’t give me the source here, never mind, let me just explain to you, here it is. First of all, the translation according to many machzorim is, “look to the covenant and don't look to the accuser.” Now, the first thing I want to ask is, does yetzer mean accuser? Clearly not. What is the word for accuser? Satan or kategor, Satan or kategor So the first thing we note is that the traditional commentaries on this prayer, I mean they're not traditional, such commentaries as exist on this prayer, are identifying this prayer with what famous scene? I mean, it's quite a good scene, I mean, it's a great scene, actually. What scene? The book of Job, exactly. The shul on Kol Nidrei night is like the beginning of the book of Job where Satan is saying, “there's no-one fully righteous on earth, et cetera, et cetera.” That is how the commentary understands it, and clearly, but clearly it is wrong, that cannot be the correct translation. Secondly, labris habeit, anyone guess what this covenant is, according to the meforshim?

According to the meforshim, and I say these are not classic meforshim, because we don't have classic commentaries on the siddur. Have a look here in the Talmudic source here in Rosh Hashanah daf yud zayin amud beis, (Bavli Rosh Hashanah 17b:5), vaya’avor Hashem al panav vaykira, this is the yud gimmel middos rachamim, this is the passage at the core of Selichos, amar Rabbi Yochanan, Rabbi Yochnan said, ilmaleh mikra kasuv ee efshar l’omro,” if it weren't written explicitly in the Torah, you couldn't say it.” Well, it isn't written explicitly in the Torah, but Rabbi Yochnan is taking poetic licence. Melamed shenisatef Hakadosh Baruch Hu keshaliach tzibbur, what scene is this, anyone know?

Audience member:

In the middle of the 40 days when Moshe is up Har Sinai.

Rabbi Sacks:

Yup, Moses is up Mount Sinai, praying to God to forgive them for the sin of the golden calf. And God passes by and Rabbi Yochanan infers from this, “were it not written, it would be impossible to say such a thing,” melamed shenisatef Hakadosh Baruch Hu keshaliach tzibbur, this teaches that Hakadosh Baruch Hu wrapped himself in a tallis like a shaliach tzibbur, v’hereh lo leMoshe seder tefillah, and he taught Moses how to daven, amar lo, He said to him, “kol z’man sheyisrael chotin ya’asu lefanai keseder hazeh, if ever Israel sin, then do to me what I am going to show you, v’ani mochel lahem, and I will forgive them, et cetera, et cetera, Ani hu kodem sheyechta ha’adam, v’ani hu l’achar sheyechta ha’adam v’ya’aseh teshuvah el rachum v’chanun. Amar Rabbi Yehudah, bris krusah lishlosh esreh middos she’einan chozros reikam, God made a covenant with the Jewish people on the basis of the 13 attributes of mercy, that whenever we say those 13 attributes of mercy, he forgives us, right? Let us just give you the background here. One of the things we do in these days leading up to Yom Kippur and on Yom Kippur itself is to say selichos, and selichos are based on the moment when Moshe Rabbeinu prayed to God, to forgive theIsraelites for making the golden calf, and Hashem passes by and says, Hashem Hashem kel rachum vechanun, and Moses himself acts on the basis of that on one later occasion, anyone know?

Audience Member:

The spies.

Rabbi Sacks:

Pardon? Exactly the chet hamergalim. When the spies commit their sin, Moshe Rabbeinu does what God had done at the episode of the golden calf, he prays to God for mercy, and God says, salachti kidvarecha, “I have forgiven as you asked.” In other words, you will have a look at selichos, have a look at selichos on Yom Kippur itself, you will see that Chazal spliced together these two passages, the passage of chet ha’egel and the passage of chet hameraglim, the sin of the golden calf and the sin of the spies. They splice them together and they explain them by saying that at the sin of the spies [corrected: golden calf], God taught Moses how to pray, and at the sin of the spies, Moses prayed that way and was answered.

So you will see that vaya’avor Hashem al panav vayikra, and then we say the yud gimmel middos, and then we say salachti kidvarecha, and we don't notice that the Sages have stuck together two passages from two different books. Incidentally, why does Rabbi Yochanan say that the Torah says specifically that God wrapped himself in a tallis like a shaliach tzibbur? How would you normally translate the phrase, vaya’avor Hashem al panav? Normally, we translate that as “God passed by Moses,” but Rabbi Yochanan says, God passed over, covered over his own face, vaya’avor Hashem al panav, meaning that he put a tallis over his face, so that Moshe Rabbeinu wouldn't have to see his face, you with me? So that is Rabbi Yochanan, and that according to the meforshim is the covenant, labris habeit v’al tefen layetzer , don't listen to the accuser, think about the covenant that you made with Moshe Rabbeinu on Mount Sinai when he prayed for forgiveness for the golden calf.

If you go back and have a look at your machzorim, you'll see that's how they translate it. The yetzer is the accuser and the covenant is the covenant of the yud gimmel middos rachamim, and both are wrong. So I just want to explain to you, what is this real story behind this particular piece of liturgical poetry because it is fascinating and it isn't stated anywhere. So I'm giving this to you, it will come out as soon as I finish the next machzor and you'll have it in the machzor. But, it's something that I only noticed when I was translating and writing the commentary.

And I want us now to think very simply about a biblical episode where the word yetzer functions significantly.

Audience member:

Rabbi Sacks:

No, a little later than that, Flora.

Audience member:

[Inaudible] Before and after the Flood.

Rabbi Sacks:

Before and after the Flood. And now I want us to focus very carefully on two biblical passages, and you will see that they are extraordinarily difficult to understand. Here it is, let's just remind ourselves of the story of the flood. God has created humanity in His image, He has high hopes, this is tzelem Elokim. Those high hopes are disappointed. Adam and Eve sin, Cain kills Abel, and before long, vatimaleh ha’aretz chamas, “the world is filled with violence,” and God, in the words of the Torah, regrets that he ever created humanity. Now have a look very carefully at the source, it’s source three (Bereishit 6:5), vayar Hashem ki rabba ra’t ha’adam ba’aretz, “God saw how great was the wickedness of humanity on earth,” vechol yetzer machshevot libo, “and all the inclination of the thoughts of his heart was,” rak ra kol hayom, “only evil the whole day, and God regretted that He had created man on earth, vayitatzev el libo, one of the most poignant lines in the whole of Tanach, God was pained to his very core.

And that is the situation. And God then de-creates the universe, brings a flood, and so at the height of the flood, we find ourselves back again, as the universe was before the first day of creationveha’aretz hayeta tohu vavohu vechoshech al p’nei hatehom, “the world was waste and void, and there was darkness over the face of the deep and the spirit of God hovered over the waters.” And then, having just saved this one family and the animals, God begins again and re-creates the earth. And Noach, when he comes out makes a little korban, makes an offering, and God sees the offering, it says he smells the offering, and we then read the following. Do you have it? Source four (Bereishit 8:21), vayar Hashem et re’ach hanicho’ach, “God smelled the sweet savour,” vayomer Hashem el libo, ”and God said himself, I will never again curse the ground,” ba’avur ha’adam, “because of man,” ki yetzer lev ha’adam ra mine’urav, “because the inclination of man is evil from youth,” velo ossif od lehakot et kol chai ka’asher asiti,“ I will never again destroy life as I have done before.”

Do you notice a contradiction here? Can you see the contradiction? In Bereishis chapter 6, the fact that every inclination of the human heart is evil is a reason for God to bring a flood. In Genesis 8, the very same thing is the reason for God, never again, to bring a flood. Now, either seeing that human inclinations are evil is a reason to destroy humanity, or is a reason not to destroy humanity, but one way or another, it cannot be both. Does that make sense? It can't be both. There is a flat contradiction between these two verses, and that is what sends our paytan [poet, author of the piyyut], and it sent the Sages to try and resolve this riddle. How is it in Bereishis 6, God condemns humanity because of the evil thoughts that he has, and two chapters later vows, never again, to do it for the very same reason.

And we have here a principle that divrei Torah ashirim bemakom echad ve’ashirim bemakom acher, sometimes the words of Torah are poor or slender in one place, but very rich in another place. You can use the whole of Tanach to understand any bit of Tanach, and this led the Sages into another pair of verses, which again, say the same thing, but in two very different ways. And here is the first, it is in source five (Jeremiah 18:5), and I will just tell you the story. God tells Jeremiah to go to the local potter's house and see how he makes earthenware vessels. And Jeremiah goes to the potter's house, sees the potter who is not very happy with one of his pots. So what do you do? Do we have a potter in our midst?

No, oh, shucks. Okay, one way or another, you take the clay, you mix it all together and you begin again. And that is what Jeremiah sees, and then he hears God saying the following, vayehi d’var Hashem elay leimor, “the word of God came to me saying,” hachayotzer hazeh loh uchal la’asot lachem beit Yisrael ne’um Hashem, “do you think I cannot behave towards you the way the potter does to his clay?” Hinei chachomer beyad hayotzer ken atem beyadai beit Yisrael, Like clay in the hands of the potter, so are you to me the House of Israel, right?” And it is clearly this passage from which the paytan built his verse, this is the biblical source of that phrase. And Hashem then continues explaining to Jeremiah, “rega adaber al goy v’al mamlachah lintosh velintotz uleha’avid,” “if I announce that a kingdom is going to be destroyed,” veshav hagoy hahu mira’ato asher dibarti alav, “and that nation does teshuvah for all the wicked it has done,” venichamti al hara’ah asher chashavti la’asot lo, “I will myself not bring about the evil that I promised, but if it does evil in my sight,” ve’asah hara’ah be’einai levilti shemo’a bekoli venichamti al hatovah [corrected] asher amarti leheitiv oto, “but if it doesn't listen to me, then I won't do any of the good things I promise, and I will do bad things."

In other words, Hashem says through Jeremiah, “Jeremiah, just tell the Israelites I am the potter here, and you're only the clay. I know what I want to achieve And either we'll do it my way, or we will do it your way. Either you do teshuvah, in which case it'll happen nicely, or if not, I will do to you what the potter does to clay when he doesn't like the pot, which is, you don't want to know, okay, you really don't want to know.” So in Jeremiah, this image of clay in the hands of the potter is an image of the all-powerfulness of God and the powerlessness of humanity to defy God, and it is in the form of a threat.

Rabbot machshavot b’lev ish v’atzat Hashem hi takum, what God has decided will happen, whatever human choose to do. Either God will bring it about nicely, if you do teshuvah, or he'll do it in a very painful way if you don't do teshuvah. One way or another, I'm in charge. That is Jeremiah. However, it is very interesting that the self-same image is used by the prophet Isaiah in a completely opposite way. And can you see it in source six? (Isaiah 64:7-8) This is an absolutely beautiful passage in Isaiah. Late Isaiah, from when we have all our shiva denechemta, I call Isaiah the Poet Laureate of hope. And these last 26 chapters, is it 26 chapters, of the book of Isaiah are amongst the most lovely in all of literature. And here is Isaiah praying to Hakadosh Baruch Hu, can you see it? V’atah Hashem, “now God, listen, who are we?” Avinu atah, “You are our father.” It may be that we've been sinful, it may be that we've neglected you, but avinu atah, you are our father. Anachanu hachomer v’atah yozrenu, "we are just the clay and You are the potter,”u’ma’aseh yad’cha kulanu, ”we are all the work of your hands,” therefore, al tiktzof Hashem ad me’od, “please don't get too angry with us Hashem,” v’al l’ad tizkor avon, “and don't remember our sins forever,” hen habeit na am’cha chulanu, "look, we are all your people.”

In other words, Isaiah does something beautiful. He says, Ribbono Shel Olam, you think we're bad? You know what, maybe we are, but who made us this way? <laugh>We're just the clay, you're the potter. We're just your children, you gave us your genes, you know, one way or another, you know, we are your image, we're your creation, we're your children, we are what you made us. We are merely the clay and you are the potter.” And that is the point which our paytan uses to solve the whole issue. And he does so on the basis of a Talmudic passage and a midrashic passage Have a look first of all, at source eight (Talmud Bavli Brachot 32a), here's a Talmudic passage.

Amar Rabbi Chama beRabbi Chanina, ilmaleh shalosh mikra’os hallalu nismotetu ragleihem shel sonei yisrael, “if it were not for these three verses, we would have nothing to say to a K on Kip or whenever we're praying to Hashem.” What are the three verses? dichsiv asher harei’osi, another one which says, hinei chachomer beyad hayotzer ken atem beyadi beis yisrael, another, Yechezkel, vehasirosi es lev ha’even mibesarchem venasasi lachem lev basar.” All three verses are implying that somehow or other God is responsible for making us what we are, yeah? All three verses. If you have a look at the Rashi, right, can you see Rashi in source nine? Dichsiv asher harei’osi, Chazal are interpreting this as meaning, “this people, who I made evil.” I mean, it's a very radical reading. It actually means who I did evil too, I punished. But the Sages read, asher harei’osi, “I'm responsible for making them that way.” Can you see Rashi? (Rashi on Berachot 32a:2) reisha dikra osfah hatzale’ah vehanidchah akabetzah v’asher hareiosi ani garamti lahem shebarasi yetzer hara, “I was responsible for them sinning because I created the yetzer hara.” And all three verses are like that. Can you see Rashi, the next line? Ilmaleh shalosh mikraos hallalu – shem’idin sheyesh beyad Hakadosh Baruch Hu letaken yitzrenu, u’lehassir yetzer hara mimemu, “Ribbono Shel Olam, you want us not to sin? Take away the yetzer hara, it's in your hands., It’s not in our hands.”

So this is the first, Gemara. The Gemara that says, if you look at these verses, you will see that it is possible to mount a defence of the fact that we are sinful human beings on the basis that God created the yetzer hara. You will see that that Gemara quotes the verse from Jeremiah. However, you can't actually read the verse from Jeremiah that way, unless you have the verse from Isaiah to help you, because Jeremiah does not use this image to defend Israel, he uses it to threaten Israel. It is Isaiah who uses it to defend Israel. And that is why we have to read the next passage, which is from Shemot Rabba, which is all based on the Isaiah passage (Shemot Rabbah 46:4). Mahu ananchnu hachomer v’atah yotzrenu, ”what is the meaning of the line in Isaiah - we are the clay and you are the potter?” Amru yisrael Ribbon HaOlam atah hichtavta lanu hinei chachomer beyad hayotzer ken atem beyadi, “when you were getting angry with the Jewish people, you said to Jeremiah, you the Bnei Yisrael, are just like clay and I am the potter. That means you are all-powerful, and we are powerless,” lechach af al pi she’anu chotim umachisim lefanecha, “therefore, even though we sin and provoke you,” al tistalek me’aleinu, “don't leave us,” lama, she’anachnu hachomer v’atah yotzrenu, why? Because we are just the clay and you are the potter. Boh u’re’eh, “come and see,” hayotzer hazeh im ya’aseh chavit veyaniach bah tz’ror, here it is, if you ever want to take up pottery, here's your crash course or smash course, whatever it is. “If a potter takes clay, and in that clay is a pebble and he doesn't remove the pebble,” keivan sheyotzah min hakivshan im yiten adam bah mashkeh menatefet hi mimkom hatzror ume’abedet et hamashkeh shebetochah.

Apparently if you put the pot in the kiln, the stone, the pebble expands at a different rate from the clay and the pot cracks. And the end result is if you put liquid in it, it will all drain away through the crack. Mi garam lechavit lenatef ule’abed mah shebetochah, hayotzer shehini’ach bo et hatz’ror. Tell me who's responsible for the liquid training away? The pot? It must be the potter. So Ribbono Shel Olam, don't blame us, you made us that way. Kach amru Yisrael lifnei Hakadosh Baruch Hu, “this is what the Jewish people said to Hashem,” Ribbon Ha’olam barata banu yetzer hara min’ureinu, Ribbono Shel Olam, you made the yetzer hara, and you said it yourself because it says, ki yetzer lev ha’adam ra mine’urav “the whole inclination of man's thoughts are only evil from his youth,” hu gorem lachtoh lefanecha, “it was the yetzer hara that caused us to sin,”

V’ein atah mesalek mimenu es hachataya, and the sin in us, the yetzer in us, is like the pebble in the vase. You didn't remove it, well, don't blame us. If you want us not to sin, just get rid of the pebble, just get rid of the yetzer hara and then we will do your will. And Hashem says, “all right, I will.” L’asid lavoh, at the end of the days, we will all go through brain surgery and we will only do good thereafter. But in the meantime, Hashem has to put up with this because he made us this way.

Now can you see what is happening here in these two verses? Isaiah is taking the image of Jeremiah, but he's turning it upside down. What Jeremiah was saying was guys, “you are powerless, so I’m going to simply smash you and begin again.” Isaiah reverses it because in Jeremiah, it's God speaking to humanity. In Isaiah it's humanity speaking to God saying “Ribbono Shel Olam, listen to what you've just said. You just said we're powerless and you are powerful. Therefore, if you want us not to sin, you bring it about, but if you want us to stay the way you made us, then please don't blame us, blame you.” So Isaiah takes the logic of Jeremiah and turns it from God's threat to us, to our powerful plea to Hashem. And that now is how the paytan is able to resolve the contradiction between Genesis 6 and Genesis 8. Can you see Genesis 6 uses the word yetzer exactly like Jeremiah does. You know, God is saying, “okay guys, I don't like the look of you. I'm going to smash you and begin again.” That is exactly what God did to humanity in the Flood. I'm going to give up on this particular piece of pottery, this particular species of humanity, we're going to destroy it and we're going to start again with Noach.

In Genesis 6, God is speaking the way he does in the book of Jeremiah. In Genesis 8, He takes that image and turns it upside down, exactly as Isaiah does. And He says, “you know what, given that human beings have this evil inclination from youth, I can't really blame them anymore, because that's the way I formed them.” And He uses the very argument that He used before the Flood to bring the Flood, now to say, “I am never again, going to make humanity suffer.” And what we have here is actually something very interesting. We normally interpret this particular piece of Chazal as applying to Bereishis 1 at the very beginning, but we can now see, it works better in Genesis 6 to 8. The famous statement that, how did God create the world? He created it bemiddat hadin, under the aspect of strict justice. And He saw that the world could not survive. What did He do? To strict justice, He added middat rachamim, and that is the difference between Bereishis 6 and Bereishis 8. In Bereishis 6, strict justice, says humanity is to be condemned, but then God sees, Ribbono Shel Olam, look at these people, they can't do anything other, they have this evil inclination from youth and He then uses middat rachamim to say “never again will I condemn humanity.”

Are you following? And that is the transition from Bereishis 6 to Bereishis 8, which is the transition from Jeremiah to Isaiah. Now, what is the logic of this? It's very interesting. What is the key verb in Bereishis chapter 1? Bereishis bara Elokim. So, in Bereishis 1, we have an image that God creates man in His image, na’aseh adam betzalmenu kidmutenu, and the word bara means creation yesh me’ayin, “creation of something from nothing.” But have a look at what verb it uses in Bereishis chapter 2. Can you see, it's in the next source, what verb? (Beresishit 2:7) Vayitzer Hashem Elokim et ha’adam, “God formed.” And what is the difference between briah and yetzirah? According to everyone, briah is yesh me’ayin, “something from nothing,” yetzira is yesh miyesh, “something from something.” And what is the something? It says very simply (Genesis 2:7), vayitzer Hashem Elokim et ha’adam afar min ha’adamah,. “He created man from the dust of the earth,” in other words, from clay “and he breathes into it,” vayipach b’apav nishmat chayim vayehi ha’adam lenefesh chayah. And that is how our paytan is understanding this huge connection between the word vayitzer in Bereishis 2, yetzer in Bereishis 6 and 8.

God finally realises, why do human beings sin? Because of the yetzer, but I was the yotzer, I formed man this way. I formed him from clay, like a potter creates a vase as we would put it nowadays, I suppose. I've finally decided to take on the Dawkins challenge, okay. So I'm going to be debating Richard Dawkins on Chol Hamoed Succos on Radio 4, so we'll see how anyway, anyway, you know, if I get out alive, I will bensch gomel. But what we would say nowadays is: here are genetically encoded instincts. What the Chassidim call nefesh habehamit, the animal soul. That thing that we, we just have as one of the elements of our being. Hashem created us with that yetzer, because that's how we evolved from we are, you know, the dust of exploded stars. We are made from clay and Hashem is the potter. And Bereishis 6, Hashem only sees the evil that human beings do. That's middat hadin, but in Bereishis 8, He sees that in a sense, this is how I made human beings in Bereishis 2. I was the yotzer, and as a result, they have the yetzer.

And that's how the poet has woven his exegesis from these five biblical passages, three of them in Bereishis using the word yetzer, and two of them in Nevi’im, one in Jeremiah, one in Isaiah, using this image of clay in the hands of the potter. Now I just want to ask what happens next after Bereishis chapter 8, when He smells the re’ach hanicho’ach. I'm sorry, does this make sense to you? You're a parent and God forbid you have a very mischievous child who never does what you tell them, especially when you tell them to go to bed, okay? And you get a bit angry with them and this, that, and the other.

And one morning, this child comes in, five years old, four years old with a little card <laugh>, you know, with a smiley face or two smiley faces, and people hand in hand, and saying, I love you, Dad, I love you, Mum, can you still be angry with such a child? That is what happens to humanity when Hashem sees Noach making a korban. I mean, does it matter to Hashem?, But here's a human being who loves Hashem, and that is the moment when Hashem's heart is changed. And that's when middat rachamim permanently enters the human condition. And what does God do next in Bereishis 9? He makes a covenant. With whom? With bnei Noach.

Now I want you to see something very important here. You know that we have spoken, I'm sure at various times, about this insight that Chazal had. And it was recovered in the 20th century, by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, of motif words, that is in a certain passage, a particular word is repeated again and again and again, so that you can hear that that word is the key theme of that passage. And very often it is repeated a significant number of times, either three times or five times or very especially seven times. Sometimes, you know, the number is pretty significant most of the time. One word appears seven times in Bereishis 1. Does anyone know what that word is?


Audience member:

Rabbi Sacks:
Tov. the word tov. God says, “let there be,” and there was. Vayar Elokim ki tov the word tov appears. And remember what I said, Bereishis 1 is creation, the Flood is de-creation, and then Noach comes out and we get re-creation. But this time another word appears seven times. Anyone know what word appears seven times in Bereishis chapter 9?

Audience member:

Rabbi Sacks:
The word brit, the word “covenant.” In other words, Bereishis 1, Hashem expects everything to be naturally good. It turns out almost everything is, but human beings aren't. And therefore, when God wants to create a new order with Noach, an order that we can live by, he no longer expects us to be naturally tov. Instead, he offers us a covenant, a covenant of mutual responsibility. I will sustain you, but I ask in return that you agree to this minimum, what we call the sheva mitzvot bnei Noach, right? And now friends, what is the meaning of hinei chachomer beyad hayotzer, labris habeit v’al tefen layetzer? First of all, what is the yetzer? The yetzer is the evil inclination, it's not the accuser. Secondly, the poet is not thinking about the scene at the beginning of the book of Job. He is thinking about the scene after the Flood and what is labrit habeit? Which covenant should Hashem be looking at rather than at the yetzer? The brit bnei Noach. That is what the poet is saying.

Labris habeit, therefore, don't destroy us, give us life, v’al tefen layetzer, and keep by your word in Bereishis 8 that we can't help our yetzer, because that's the way you made us and he saw that rak ra min’urav, that, you know, from youth we have this yetzer hara and that's our yetzer, but you are our yotzer. And therefore don't look at the yetzer because you placed it in us. Labris habeit, look at the covenant you made with Noach. And that is how one liturgical poet has woven together five biblical texts. Three from Bereishis, two from Nevi’im, to come up with this wonderful, wonderful concept of defending the Jewish people and indeed humanity on this day of days, on this night of nights on Kol Nidrei night, are you following? And for some reason, the commentators didn't see this, so I'm just sharing it with you now.

Now I want us to see the following. Number one, are you a bit surprised by this, that it's the Noachide covenant rather than any of the Jewish covenants. I'm sure you have noticed, sorry, Rafi.

Audience member:

It makes it universal as opposed to Jewish.

Rabbi Sacks:

Exactly so. There is one fundamental difference between the shalosh regalim, between Pesach, Shavuos and Succos on the one hand, and Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur on the other. What is the difference? How does the middle passage of the Amidah begin on Pesach, Shavuos and Succos? Atah vechartanu mikol ha’amim ahavta osanu veratzisa banu, it's Jewish singularity, you chose us, Jews, from all peoples. It's all about the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people. How does the Amidah begin on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Uv’chen ten pachedha… al kol ma shebarasa veyira’ucha kol ham’asim [corrected], it's all about humanity in general, the Amidah begins with humanity in general. Have a look at what we say in Unesaneh Sokef, kol ba’ei olam, kol yetzur, kol briah, it's all about everything that is. The entire universe is judged on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Why? Because these are the festivals of creation rather than revelation or redemption. And God as creator is the God of all humanity.

If you look, all the festivals of Tishrei have a universalistic dimension, whereas the other festivals have a particular dimension. They're all about all humanity. And that is why the paytan here is talking about the brit bnei Noach. And in any case he could not but talk about the brit bnei Noach, because that's where the word yetzer appears. So number one, note the universality of this prayer, and it's very moving. I find the whole thing is incredibly moving that we don't ask everyone to worship as we worship, but nonetheless, we are concerned that God forgive all humanity. What is the final biblical reading that we do on Yom Kippur? The book of Jonah, which is about, it's about God sending Yonah to the anshei Ninveh. And Yonah doesn't like it very much, because they're not Jewish, besides which they, you know, they're Assyrians, they are not our friends at all, and he runs away. But God says at the end, here are 120,000 people, you know, I made them, shouldn't I have rachmanus on them?

Incidentally, I don't have, anyone got a book of Genesis? If you have a look in that lovely prayer we say in selichos, haneshamah lach vehaguf pe’alach chusah [nah] al amalach. If you look at the last verses of the book of Jonah, you will see that last phrase, vechusah al amalach. He says, you were worried about this gourd, this kikayon, which you didn't labour, you weren't amel to bring it up, but shall I not be chas, shall I not have compassion on 120,000 people, et cetera? In other words, the paytan of that particular bit of selichos is actually quoting the last two verses from the book of Jonah. So you see that Yom Kippur culminates, in terms of biblical reading, with the most universalistic of all the books in the whole of Tanach.

So that is the first point, the universalism. Secondly, what kind of logic is the paytan using? I mean, Ribbono Shel Olam, please forgive us, because if you're upset the way we are, you made us that way. What would you call that?

Audience member:


Rabbi Sacks:

Chutzpah, exactly so. <laugh> And on Yom Kippur, even the chutzpah works. This is called being melamed zechut. I give you an example in the last of the mekorot, I don’t know if you have it here. You know, I'll explain it, you don't need to see it in the source, you look at it later. You know, there is a place name in the beginning of Devarim, which is fascinating. You know, right at the beginning of Devarim, Moshe Rabbeinu is recounting some of the places that they went to, and there's one place name he mentions, which doesn't appear anywhere else. And everyone wants to know why is it there? And the place is called Di Zahav.

And Chazal give the most brilliant, extraordinary interpretation of this, when they are giving an explanation of the prayers that Moshe Rabbeinu prayed that got God to forgive them for the sin of the golden calf. Chazal said, this is what Moshe Rabbeinu said to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. He says, Ribbono Shel Olam, you're quite right. They made a golden calf and it's a terrible thing to make a golden calf, but tell me, Ribbono Shel Olam, how come did they have the gold to begin with? You told them to ask for it. You gave them the gold. So they weren't supposed to do something with it. If you hadn't given them the gold, they would never have made a golden calf.

That is di zahav, you gave them too much gold, yoter midai, di zahav, you gave them an excess of gold, and that's why they made the golden calf. That is called being melamed zechut. That's what you pay a good barrister to do. That is what is called in America: ‘the junk food defence’. You know, this defence, this guy who went around killing people and his barrister said, “well, he eats a lot of Mars bars and it gets him all hyper. So, you know, don't blame him, blame the junk food.” This is called ‘the junk food defence.’ It's called being melamed zechut, and it is something very Jewish. I don’t know if all Barristers are Jewish, most of them are, but it's something very beautiful. And the great, great expert of all time, and my favourite Rov of all time was Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. And he used to be melamed zechus on Am Yisrael on the Yamim Noraim.

And my favourite Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev story, and there are so many of them, you know. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev one Shabbos is in the main town square, and there is a Jew smoking a cigarette on Shabbos in public. So Levi Yitzchak goes up to him and says, ”Reb Yid, Reb Yid, you forgot, you forgot, you forgot today was Shabbos.” And the Jew said, “no, I know it's Shabbos.” He said, “ah, ah, you forgot that you're not allowed to smoke on Shabbos.” And the guy says, “no, I know you're not allowed to smoke on Shabbos.” “Ah, Red Yid, I hate to tell you this, but somehow inadvertently you put a cigarette in your mouth and lit it.” And the Jew says, “no, no, I know perfectly well that I'm deliberately smoking a cigarette on Shabbos.” And Levi Yitzchak looks up to heaven and says, “Ribbono Shel Olam, mi k’amcha Yisrael, what people you have, you give them every chance to tell a lie and they won't.”

This is being melamed zechus. And that is what the paytan is saying here. You know, labris habeit, we’re just the chomer beyad hayotzer, and who did he learn it from? He learned it from Isaiah. This is the extraordinary thing. You remember what Isaiah said, “Ribbono Shel Olam, avinu atah, you're our father. We're just the clay, you're the potter.” He learned this from Isaiah, this extraordinary thing, which stretches from rabbinic Midrash all the way to the Chassidic masters of the 18th and 19th century. It belongs there at the very beginning of the history of prophecy in Israel. Because this particular verse from chapter 64 in Isaiah is the first recorded instance I know of, of being melamed zechut in quite that way. And it's a wonderful tradition and you see where it's based.

And let me finally try and explain something to you which is really complicated, but, it's complicated. Tell me, if you were a judge, would you buy this defence? Yes or no? I mean, depends right, depends. Catch me on a good day, yes, but most days, no. I just want to explain something to you and here, I really I'm just going to hint at something because I haven't written the book and I need to write it, but here it goes. I once argued and I say it very briefly in my book, what is called Radical Then, Radical Now that there is a fundamentally different way that Jews think from the way that the Greeks thought. In fact, the new book, The Great Partnership is a little bit about it, and I want to explain something very yesodi, something very fundamental. The Greeks were the great masters of logic - Aristotelian syllogisms - the Greeks thought through logic, and the basis of Greek logic is called the Law of Contradiction - either P or not P, either statement is true or it's false, hose two alternatives.

Judaism does not see truth as two dimensional, as flat. It sees truth as three or four dimensional. So that two statements that seem to be contradicting one another may both be true, but they see things from different perspectives. And there are ways in which the Torah does this. And I call this the dialogical imagination and the chronological imagination. The dialogical imagination is like, for instance, the Mishnah, Beis Hillel says, this Beis Shammai says that. And the two are in dialogue with one another and both may be true from different perspectives. We pasken the law like one of them, but we don't eliminate the other. You will know, although the Sages ruled according to Beit Hillel, nonetheless Beit Shammai always appears in the Mishnah, they didn't take it out. And as you know, they teach Beit Shammai before they state the views of Hillel.

And sometimes it works chronologically. How, for instance? There was a very, very great Jewish thinker of the 20th century, Rav Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, and he wrote a famous extended essay called The Lonely Man of Faith, in which he says that we have two images of humanity in Judaism, Adam I, what he calls majestic man, the power of humanity to explain and control the universe, we are creators. And then Adam II, covenantal man, when we are not creators, we are creations. We are full of awe and we are passive in the face of experience. And he sees that as an existential contradiction, but in truth Jews resolve that contradiction.

How, anyone know?

Audience member:

Rabbi Sacks:


Audience Member:

We say eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim.

Rabbi Sacks:

Yes, but this is clever Flora. How? Six days a week we are Adam I. On the seventh day, we're Adam II. That's what I call the chronological imagination. Some days we live out one truth and other days we live out another truth. Are you with me? Niels Bohr, the Nobel Prize winning physicist came up with something called complementarity theory. Now, if there's anyone here who understands complementarity theory, please explain it to me because if not, I'm going to give you my badly garbled version. Anyone know what it is, could somebody explain this for us? Okay, well, alright, here it goes, here it goes. Is light a series of particles or is it a series of waves? And as you know, light shows both properties. So how can we resolve this? And here is a lovely little story, it's a true story. This is how Niels Bohr worked it out.

His son was a good kid, but obviously he fell into bad company and his son stole something from the local shop, and the shopkeeper noticed and came to tell Niels Bohr about it. And Niels Bohr said, “I was sitting there trying to get my thoughts in order, and I found that I was caught between two ways of seeing this situation. What I would say if I were the judge, if I were the magistrate, and what I would say as the boy's father. And I couldn't possibly, you know, I couldn't reconcile those.” Are you with me? If I were the magistrate, this is what I would have to say. But if I'm just a dad, this is what I have to say. And that led him to this idea of complementarity theory, that you can see things in two different ways, but not both at once.

Do you remember those visual images, the gestalt psychology thing, the figure that looks like a duck seen one way, and a rabbit seen the other, and you flip between the two and you can't see them both at the same time, but you can see them sequentially. And that is what I see in Judaism. That's what I'm saying, you know, there's a moment when we live out this truth and there's a moment when we live out the other truth. And now, if you are willing to see the final coup de grâce, as it were, of this whole thing, this is what Rabbi Akiva saw. And it gave rise to two words that are the key words of our prayer on the yomim noraim. What are the two words? Avinu Malkenu. Ribbono Shel Olam, we stole something from the local store and we know hinei Yom Hadin, these are days of judgement, so you're sitting as the magistrate, now, you're sitting as Hamelech hamishpat, the God who metes out justice. But Ribbono Shel Olam, you're also avinu, so please, before you start thinking of us as a judge would think of our behaviour, think as a father would think in relation to his children. And it is that ability to put those two words together in that order that makes Rabbi Akiva the key figure in the whole of this way we relate to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

And who was the per first person to use the word avinu to be melamed zechut on klal Yisrael? You just saw it in the verse, Isaiah, avinu atah. Ribbono Shel Olam you’ve got a ta’anah against us, but at the end of the day avinu atah. So you see how Isaiah inspires these two great traditions. Number one, the tradition of being melamed zechut, of learning, of seeing the merit in Israel and rising to their defence, and the phraseology of Rabbi Akiva, which operates such a key role in the y’mei teshuvah. Friends, I hope that we can see what extraordinary depth is buried in one single line of our prayers on Yom Kippur, and surely to goodness, the more we study our prayers, the more things of beauty we will see. But I think it is a really lovely thing that even if 364 days of the year, we act as if we have free will and as if we have pure responsibility for everything we ever did, nonetheless, Hashem allows us that one day, that only one day, when we say Ribbono Shel Olam, we couldn't help it, you made us that way.

That is the only day Hashem listens to that particular appeal. And that is why we get it in at the first opportunity. That is a chronological truth, because we couldn't live the whole of the year round like that. We would just lose all moral responsibility. So I hope I've given you a little insight into one line of the prayers we're going to say on this Yom Kippur.

May Hashem accept all our prayers. May we be melamed zechut on one another and may He bless us all and write us and seal us in the Book of Life.


Watch the 2012 LSJS shiur on 'The Meaning of Kol Nidre'