A Mystical Covenant
At the inaugural lecture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Memorial Lectures delivered shortly after the Rebbe’s passing, Rabbi Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, delivered this shiur in the UK.
Lord Young, Mr President of the United Synagogue, Mr President of the Board of Deputies, distinguished Rabbanim, ladies and gentlemen.
On this momentous occasion, I could not do other than begin with one of the most moving scenes in the whole of scriptures, the scene in the second book of Kings which describes the last days of Eliyahu HaNavi, that great, passionate, visionary leader of Israel – the prophet Elijah.
Elijah, we remember, had once stood on Mount Carmel, and confronted the people of Israel with the great choice: Do we serve God, or do we serve the idols of our age? And Am Yisrael – the Israelites – at the culmination of that great experience, cried out (in words that we will say seven times at the climax of Neilah, at the end of Yom Kippur in a few days time) “Hashem Hu HaElokim, Hashem Hu HaElokim!” – “The Lord – alone – is God!”
And then again is was Elijah who stood on another mountain, on Mount Horeb, and learned that God is not in the whirlwind or in the earthquake or in the fire but (in other words we will also say on Yom Kippur and that we have just said on Rosh Hashanah) in the kol demah dakah – in the still, small voice that speaks within the human soul.
And it was after that vision that Eliyahu spread his cloak over the person who was to become his disciple – the prophet Elisha. And finally, the moment comes when Elijah is about to be taken from the world. He is going to die. He knows it. Elisha knows it. The Bnei Neviim – the company of prophets who were with them — they all know it. And Elijah says to Elisha, “Stay here, I have to cross the Jordan. God has called on me to make that final journey at the end of my life. I am about to take the one journey that each of us must make alone.”
And Elisha refuses to be separated from his Rav, from his Rebbe. He says “By the life of God and by your life, I will not leave you.” And the two of them walked together.
And it came to pass as they crossed the Jordan and Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask, tell me what I can do for you before I am taken from you and from this life.” And he asks one thing: “Please grant me a double portion of your spirit.” Just as Moses, commanded by God to lay one hand on Joshua, his successor, instead – out of love for his disciple – laid both hands, giving Joshua a double portion of his spirit, so Elisha makes his request. Elijah says, “You have asked a very difficult thing. But this I promise you: if you still see me, if a vision of me still remains with you after I am taken from you, you will have a double portion of my spirit. And if not, not.”
And then Elisha sees a chariot of fire and horses of fire taking Elijah to heaven. And he cries, “My father, my father, chariot and horsemen of Israel.” And he takes hold of his clothes and he tears them in two.
Nothing more precisely captures our sense – my sense – of inconsolable loss at the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The man who was for hundreds of thousands of his disciples and admirers nothing less than “Avi Avi” – “My father, my father.” And yet nothing more eloquently defines our consolation.
Says the Midrash, “Elijah did not really die.” He continued to appear to the sages as a kind of living bond between earth and heaven. And why? Because his disciples kept his teachings alive. “If my vision stays with you even after I am gone, I will still be alive in your heart. If what I was, if what I did continues to inspire you then you will still have a double portion of my spirit.” And that, in Jewish terms, is immortality.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe was one of the immortals. One of the real immortals. My task tonight is not to paint a portrait of his life. That surely will be done on other occasions by others. But at least let me say this: Among the very greatest Jewish leaders of the past there were some which transformed communities. There were others who raised up many disciples, there were yet others who left us codes and commentaries which will be studied for all time. But there can have been few in the entire history of one of the oldest peoples in the world who in one lifetime made his influence felt throughout the entire Jewish world.
Wherever Jews are, there you will find a direct personal emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. And there you will see him or her reaching out to Jews and rekindling the flame of Jewish life. Lubavitch went and still goes everywhere. Above all, Lubavitch went before anyone else, and at a time when it was fraught with immense danger, to the former Soviet Union to reach out to the Jews of silence and keep the spirit of Judaism alive. It was risky — it was almost impossible. And because it was almost impossible, Lubavitch did it. Under the Rebbe, Chabad recognised no boundaries.
Lubavitch recognised no closed doors, no fences, no boundaries. The Torah says if you are scattered to the very ends of the heaven “from there will the Lord your God gather you and from there will He bring you back.” And was there ever a religious leader in Israel who took that verse so to heart, and so astonishingly became a partner with the Almighty Himself, in bringing back Jews from every corner of the Jewish world?
And I have often asked myself, why? What drove the Lubavitcher Rebbe? Was it, I once thought, that extraordinary statement of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chasidic movement, who himself spent a lifetime going out to Jews wherever they were — in little villages, little shtetlach, and who when asked why he does this, why he doesn’t do what a rabbi is supposed to do — sit in his study and learn, the Baal Shem Tov said, “Every single Jew is a letter in the Torah scroll. And just as a Torah scroll is invalid if one letter is obliterated or missing, so the Jewish people, which is a living Torah scroll, is invalid if one Jew is missing. I go around restoring Jews to their place in the Torah.” Was it that image that drove him?
Was the life work of the Lubavitcher Rebbe nothing less than a recreation in a secular world of the early days of the Chasidic movement itself, when, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself put it, that the task of Chasidism was to wake the Jewish people from its spiritual sleep? Was that it? Was he recreating what had once happened two centuries before?
Or was it something else? Was it perhaps that the Lubavitcher Rebbe lived through the black hole of Jewish history — the Holocaust. He had seen his whole world, that world of Eastern European Jewry, go up in flames. And I have often asked myself, what did he feel — he who cared so much? What did he feel about the destruction of one third of our Jewish people, including one and a half million children, Jewish children who never tasted sin?
Chassidut uses a very powerful, highly charged word from Kabbalah, tikkun – which means to mend this fractured world. How could you mend a fracture so deep, such a hole in the heart of humanity? And I once speculated in a newspaper article that maybe, just maybe, the Lubavitcher Rebbe had undertaken the most daring spiritual initiative ever undertaken in the history of humanity. Would it be possible to search out every Jew in love as Jews had once been searched out and hunted down in hate, and was this the only possible tikkun – the only possible mending of a post-Holocaust world. Who can say?
Perhaps the Rebbe had seen as the Talmud tells us that Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon had seen many centuries earlier — the Sefer Torah — the great scroll of the Jewish people burning, and was he single-handedly trying to rewrite it? I don’t know. But all we know for sure is that there are few phenomena like it in the whole of Jewish history, and it owed its inspiration to one man. And one day we will tell our children’s children that we were privileged to live in the same age as him.
When I was privileged for the first occasion to meet the Rebbe, to walk into is presence, to share a conversation with him, I discovered something quite stunning. I had met dozens, dozens of other leaders, and from every other leader I had asked questions and I had received answers. The Rebbe was the only one who asked me questions. And what questions they were! “What are you doing for Jewish life in Cambridge?” I remember beginning my answer. “Well,” I said, “in the situation in which I find myself” – what a wonderful English beginning – and the Rebbe interrupted me in the middle of the sentence and he said to me, “No one ever finds himself in a situation. You put yourself in a situation. And if you put yourself in one situation, you can put yourself in a different situation.” And at that moment I understood that the Rebbe was not interested in creating followers. He was interested in creating leaders. He was quite the most selfless and self-effacing leader I have ever met. He embodied, to the ultimate degree, that wonderful moment in the Torah when Joshua rushes to Moses and says: “Moses, there are other people prophesying in the camp. Shut them up. They’re challenging your leadership.” And Moses replies, “Are you jealous for me?”
The Rebbe was an extraordinary man who practiced Torah leadership on an unimaginably vast scale, geographically and, above all, spiritually. And it is about that spirituality that I wish to dedicate the remainder of my words because tonight I want to repay a personal debt that I owe the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
It came about in a most extraordinary way. I had just obtained my rabbinic ordination and I went to the Rebbe to ask his advice as to what to do next. Should I go back to my first career as a teacher of secular philosophy or should I pursue my real ambition which was to be a barrister? And I had been led to believe that what one did was one presented choices to the Rebbe and he said either this or that.
Well, he said neither. He said, “You have to become a rabbi. You have to become a rabbi in Anglo-Jewry.” He directed every single part of that conversation to the Rabbinate. He spoke to me about how to revive Jews’ College, which was then near to closure. He even told me to change the subject of my doctoral thesis, which at that time I was writing in secular philosophy. He said, “Make it something about the Rabbinate.” Eventually I chose the topic of the principle that all Jews are bound together — are collectively responsible. And then he said, “When you finish your doctorate, please send me a copy. I would like to read it.”
Some years later, I finished it. And I wondered, should I send it? I knew that every single week the Rebbe receives thousands of letters from across the world. All he needs is a 400 page doctoral thesis. But my friends in Lubavitch House said, “If the Rebbe said send it, you send it.” So I sent it.
Some weeks later, a letter came back. Not typed, but carefully written out in the Rebbe’s own handwriting. I didn’t realise at the time the value of such a letter so I promptly lost it, but I can still remember exactly what it said. It criticised two things, of which tonight I am only going to speak about one. It criticised one of the words that I had translated in the thesis, and then the Rebbe said, “You have written a doctorate on Jewish collective responsibility. I am surprised that you didn’t mention Chapter 32 of Tanya” – that great work of Chabad Chasidism of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Why didn’t I write, he was implying, about the mystical dimension of the love of Jew for Jew which defines us as a people?
I must say I was surprised. I had written a doctorate about Jewish law, about halachah, and the Rebbe was telling me I should have mentioned in this doctorate something that was not about halachah — not about Jewish law — but about Jewish mysticism. Certainly, I had included in my analysis the work of Rabbi Schneur Zalman on Jewish law. But he wanted me to include not only the legal work but also the mystical work. And I couldn’t see how it fit in.
The Rebbe was saying something quite fundamental, quite daring. He was saying, in effect, that we couldn’t even understand Jewish law — the Jewish law of loving our fellow Jews — without understanding the mystical basis for that love. In this case, the mitzvah — the command — and the mystical root of the command were inseparable. And I never understood it until now. But tonight I offer, according to my limited understanding, my guess at what the Rebbe meant, what he wanted me to say and what I have not yet said.
I set it out in the form of an extraordinary proposition. We take it for granted as Jews that we are bound by a covenant of shared fate. Nothing could more tragically have reminded us of that fact than the Holocaust itself, where Jews were sentenced to death not just because they were Jews, not even because their parents were Jews, but because their grandparents were Jews. The most fervent and the most assimilated. Even those who spent a lifetime pretending that they weren’t Jews were sentenced to the same decree. In that fateful moment, we heard a terrible echo of the words of Mordechai to Esther in the Book of Esther: “Don’t believe that you, Esther, in the king’s palace will be able to escape the fate of your people.” We knew and we know that we are bound by a covenant of mutual destiny and responsibility and mutual love, and the sages defined that in terms of the phrase that “all Jews are responsible for one another.”
But what I want to ask now is where does that phrase first occur — and on what is it based? The sages never made statements like this without finding some basis in a Biblical text, and in this case what was their text?
The phrase, “All Jews are mutually responsible,” occurs in the Talmud in two tractates, in Shavuot and in Sanhedrin. However, it occurs for the first time in the Sifra, which is a Rabbinic commentary to the book of Leviticus from the time of the Mishna, dated somewhere around the second century of the Common Era. And it occurs in the context of a Rabbinic commentary to that terrible passage in the Torah portion of Bechukotai, in the 26th chapter of the book of Leviticus known as the Tochacha, the passage that describes the curses that will, God forbid, befall Israel as a people if they disobey God. It is such a traumatic, terrifying passage that when we read it in the synagogue, we read it in an undertone.
And the text says that Israel will suffer terrible catastrophes, it will be exiled from its land, and God will make fearful the hearts of those who remain after all the tragedies in the land of their enemies, and they will be terrified by the sound of a leaf blown by the wind. And they will run away as if people were chasing them with a sword when nobody is chasing them at all. And they will stumble over one another as if they were running away when nobody is actually pursuing them.
And on that phrase – “They will fall over one another,” the Sifra says: Don’t read this phrase “They shall fall over one another.” Read it, “They shall fall because of one another. Because of one another’s sins.” And from this we learn that all Jews share a fate and a responsibility.
It is this Rabbinic teaching which is subsequently quoted in the Talmud in the tractates of Shavuot and Sanhedrin and constitutes our only source for the principle that Jews are bound to one another in a covenant of shared duty. What I want us to understand tonight and what I never fully understood before is that in this Rabbinic passage, there is a mystery. And if we take time to meditate on this mystery, we will uncover one of the greatest spiritual crises in the history of Judaism. And we will come, I believe, to the inescapable conclusion that 1800 years ago, mysticism saved the Jewish people.
The mystery is this: Why was it, during the second century of the Common Era, 1800 years ago, that the Rabbis chose this text and no other to prove that Jews are united? On the face of it, no more peculiar text is imaginable. Because if you and I were searching for a text to prove that our destinies as Jews are interlinked, the question wouldn’t be which text would we choose. The question would be which text wouldn’t we choose. Practically every single line of the Torah speaks about our collective fate. Whenever the Torah speaks about reward and punishment, it talks about our collective reward, our collective punishment. Everything about Judaism is collective. We prosper together, we suffer together. We share the same fate. We are bound together.
Could the Rabbis find no other proof than this text of Jews stumbling over one another — a text taken from the curses that might befall the Jewish people — a text which speaks of Israel in exile in the land of their enemies? What were the rabbis doing ignoring every other text and choosing just this one? On the face of it, it is inexplicable, and only if you and I can feel that inexplicability will we understand the depth of crisis into which the Jewish people was plunged by the destruction of the Second Temple.
Let me explain: We tend to think of collective responsibility as a very Jewish idea, but the truth is, it is not a particularly Jewish idea — it is a simple, everyday idea. To be an inhabitant of a neighbourhood or to be a citizen of any country, of any state, is to be involved in some form of collective responsibility. The idea is comprehensive but only under one or two conditions: I am affected by those with whom I live in physical proximity — by my neighbours, by the people I live physically close to, or I am affected by those to whom I am bound in a single political entity — by my fellow citizens. What happens to a country affects all the citizens.
And that is why during virtually the whole of the period of Scriptures, the idea of Jews being collectively responsible is self-evident and it is there in every line of the Torah. The Torah is full of it because for practically the whole period of Scriptures those two conditions were satisfied. Jews lived in physical proximity to one another and they were a political entity. They were that political entity called a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Now we understand the immense crisis — unprecedented in all of Jewish history of the destruction of the Second Temple and its aftermath: an exile that was to last more than 1800 years, and a dispersion that was to scatter Jewish people across the world. Almost for the first time in history, the Jewish people was no longer a body politic because they had lost sovereignty and autonomy. They no longer ruled themselves. And they no longer lived together because they were dispersed across the world. This had only happened once before in Jewish history, when the Assyrians conquered the Northern kingdom of Israel. And the result of that is that 80 per cent of the Jewish people assimilated and disappeared.
(The Babylonian exile of the Southern kingdom, during the destruction of the First Temple, was something different. It was a brief exile, less than 70 years. That was not a critical test of Jewish survival. They came back soon enough for them not to disintegrate.)
Now we understand the full pathos and depth of the Sifra. The question was not, where do we find a proof that that the Jewish people is a single entity bound by a collective fate? The question was, where do we find that the Jewish people is still a single entity, even in exile, even in dispersion across the face of the earth. Could it be that the Jewish people were still a people in the land of their enemies, when they had neither of the necessary conditions of being a united people?
And clearly for that you couldn’t search the whole of the Torah. The whole of the Torah was predicated on the fact that Jews were together. There are only two places in the whole Torah where you could find a source that might say that even then Jews stayed a people. The only two places were the two passages of the Tochacha itself — the very passage in the Torah that talks about this catastrophe befalling the Jewish people, of Israel being exiled and dispersed. That is why the Rabbis had to look just here, and this is where they found it. Even a people broken apart, shattered geographically and politically, remains a united people. That is why they searched for this one verse.
I have explained why they searched for the text where they did. But I have not explained why they knew that they were going to find it there. They say about Michelangelo and his great sculpture of David that he didn’t carve it from the stone. He merely uncovered it from the stone. He already knew it was there in potential. Now you and I and a million others could pass a block of stone for a hundred years and we would see a block of stone. It takes a Michelangelo to look at a block of stone and see in it a David. It needed a Michelangelo of the Jewish spirit to see what nobody else could — namely that even though to all appearances and by all human logic Israel was no longer a people or a nation — nonetheless it was still both of these things. And who was this Michelangelo? He was perhaps the greatest of all Jewish mystics. A man who lived through those times. A man known as Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
What is a mystic? I don’t know. My Oxford English Dictionary tells me that a mystic is one who seeks by contemplation and self surrender to obtain union with or absorption into the deity, or one who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths inaccessible to the understanding — and I’m sure that’s right. But I prefer the very simple definition given to me by a fellow student when, 25 years ago, I went to study in Kfar Chabad. He said: “The difference between me and you is that you are a philosopher from Cambridge. Therefore, you believe in the World and you ask whether God exists. I am just a Chasid. I believe in God and I ask whether the World exists.” That is a mystic. A mystic is one for whom the spiritual is more real than the physical. And such a person was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
In physical, empirical, visible terms, Israel was no longer a nation. It had none of the properties of a nation: not shared territory — the physical definition; not shared sovereignty — the political definition. Visibly it was not a nation. Along came Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in the text known to us as the Mechilta d’Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai, and he took the Biblical phrase “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” and he said, goy – the word “nation” – teaches us that the Jewish people is like one body and one soul. And so it says in Isaiah: “Who is like Israel, a nation one on earth. If one Jew sins we are all punished. And if one Jew suffers, we all feel pain.”
That is a mystical statement, and it is not too much to say that this statement made after the destruction of the Second Temple and the subsequent Roman persecutions, actually saved the Jewish people. Because even when politically and physically we were no longer a nation, mystically, said Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, we are still a nation. When there is nothing else visible to hold the Jewish people together, that invisible mystical bond will hold the Jewish people together.
And it was that mystical vision which reached its highest expression 16 centuries later in Chapter 32 of Tanya – the chapter that the Rebbe had wanted me to quote in my doctorate. Because in that chapter, Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains that Jews are called literally brothers and sisters to one another because each Jew’s soul is in the one God and, therefore, we are one soul. It is only in terms of bodily presence that we are separated from one another. And just as there can be no divisions within God, so there can be no divisions within the collective soul of the Jewish people. Therefore, when we live at the level of the soul, there is unity amongst Jews, but when we live at the level of the body there is disunity amongst Jews. When we live at the level of the soul, we fulfill the command that you shall love your neighbour — not as yourself, but because he is yourself. And it is that mystical idea that lies at the heart of Jewish law.
And I finally understood why the Lubavitcher Rebbe had written to me that my thesis was incomplete without this chapter of Tanya. Because the whole of Jewish law rests on it. The very existence of the Jewish people for the last 2,000 years depended on a belief that even outside Israel, even without power, even dispersed across the world, the Jewish people remains one nation linked to one another, responsible for one another — a single nation bound by a covenant of mutual responsibility. That is a mystical belief, but it was that belief that kept us as a people since the destruction of the Second Temple to today.
It was, of course, that self-same belief that lay behind every single act the Lubavitcher Rebbe took. If one Jew suffers, we all feel pain. Many of us can understand that sentence as a metaphor, but only a true mystic can experience that sentence as a reality — can actually feel the pain. And that is why the Rebbe sent messages and messengers to every corner of the Jewish world. Because if one Jew is suffering, if one Jew is not yet written into the Torah scroll — the book which is our book of life — he felt pain.
I have read many works of post-Holocaust Jewish theology. And they all ask the same question. They ask what unites us — the Jewish people — today, with all our divisiveness and arguments. And in them I read the same answer: What unites us as Jewish people today is memories of the Holocaust, fears of antisemitism. What unites us as a people is that other people hate us.
The Rebbe taught the opposite message. What unites us, he taught, is not that other people don’t like us, but that God loves us; that every one of us is a fragment of the Divine presence and together we are the physical presence of God on earth. Surely that message — spiritual, mystical as it is—is so much more powerful, so much more noble, so much more benign than the alternative.
I have tried to pay tribute this evening, not only to one of the great leaders of Jewish history but also to one of the great ideas of the Jewish spirit — the idea that even when the physical and political bonds of Jewish unity are broken, as they have been for the last 1800 years, a mystical bond remains, binding Jew to Jew in a covenant of love. I have suggested that that idea, in the days of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, saved the Jewish people from fragmenting and disappearing. And it is that same idea which, in our day, led one extraordinary individual to transform the Jewish world.
I can think of no more visible proof of the power of an invisible force – the force of the mystical Ahavat Yisrael, the love for every Jew — which the Lubavitcher Rebbe so loved and lived and taught, and how badly we need that message today. May a double portion of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s spirit stay with us, as we seek together to mend the Jewish world.