Sunday, March 21, 2010

Why Can't America Have A Chief Rabbi This Cool!?

For those who aren't in the know, Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth Lord Jonathan Sacks and his wife, Lady Elaine, have been visiting YU all week. On Tuesday he received the first-ever Lamm Prize, which is a new award that YU will be giving out to those outstanding individuals who represent the hashkafic values of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm and Yeshiva University (think outstanding Torah Umadda personality). If anyone deserved to be the first recipient, it is the Chief Rabbi.

The Chief (as my British friends from yeshiva call him) gave an outstanding acceptance speech on Tuesday night. While the recording has not yet been made available on yet, (though you can a handful of other shiurim by him here), Chana at The Curious Jew has a great, near-complete transcript. Make sure you hear the recorded version, whenever that gets posted. I imagine that they're waiting until after tomorrow's Kollel Yom Rishon lecture to post all his shiurim he gave this week.

I also was lucky enough to attend the Rabbi Sacks Bonanza Shabbaton at Stern on Friday/Shabbos, where I was priviledged to hear many more fascinating, inspiring words from the Chief Rabbi.

As a side note, before anyone starts criticizing me for going to a shabbaton on the women's campus - I did NOT go to meet girls, and am in fact "busy" as they say. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I couldn't pass up, and I am quite glad I went.

Before davening Friday night, Rabbi Sacks asked (repeated and broadcast by President Joel) to make sure the davening was lively. The five Maccabeats (don't forget their free concert/album release party this upcoming Tuesday!) on hand definitely delivered with a very rousing Carlebach-style Kabbalos Shabbos. It was an amazing sight to see Rabbi Sacks grab the hands of the few guys standing nearest him and start dancing up and down the aisle of the theater (the shul is the Stern theater where they have their play and where the annual Battle of the Bands takes place). He's definitely a very cool guy, if I may say so.

I can't possibly repeat everything that Rabbi Sacks said over Shabbos, so a few short snippets will have to suffice.

Shabbos night after dinner, Rabbi Sacks had an "informal conversation" with President Richard Joel, which consisted of a set of predetermined questions, which were embellished a little by President Joel in humorous ways.

When asked in he always intended to be a Chief Rabbi and a lord, Rabbi Sacks replied that he actually had no intention to be a rabbi at all. He initially wanted to be a professor of economics, a tenured fellow at his university (Cambridge), or a barrister, and only began officially learning for rabbanus at 25. However, as it turns out, he has been able to achieve each of those goals despite his choice of profession and appointment as Chief Rabbi. Cambridge made him an honorary professor (and he has lectured in economics), and he was also made an honorary barrister and has lectured in the English courts.

Rabbi Sacks then quoted a line from one of his books (he didn't mention the title, and I'm going to paraphrase at any rate) that spoke about how G-d has a specific role/job in mind for every person in life. How do we know that we've found our tachlis in life? "When your passion coincides with a task that needs to be done" - and that combination lets you fulfill a necessary, personally meaningful role in the world.

As for becoming a lord, he said that was up to the decision of someone higher up, and not something you can aspire toward.

When asked how he met his wife, Rabbi Sacks replied that he and a friend had seen his future wife and another young woman while they were in university, approached them and invited them for dinner (which he prepared) back at their apartment.

At this point, President Joel interrupted Rabbi Sacks and asked him if he meant to say he was introduced by a shadchan. Rabbi Sacks said that this was before shadchanim arrived in Cambridge - "back when the world was sane." That comment drew a huge applause from the Stern students (and presumably some of the YU guys as well) in the crowd.

When asked how he knew Lady Elaine was going to be his wife, Rabbi Sacks said he knew because the woman who could eat the chicken that he prepared must have been one he'd spend the rest of his life with (that drew some laughs from the crowd).

Another side note: Rabbi Sacks mentioned that he and Lady Elaine would be celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary this year!

Rabbi Sacks remarked that we can never know what impact we have in our lifetime - since we aren't around to read our own complete biography. He told us about his experience sitting shiva for his father, and how seemingly random people came from near and far to visit him and his brothers to tell them stories of kidnesses their father had performed 50-60 years ago. Despite his impression that his father had been a fairly unsuccessful schmatta seller in England's equivalent of the Lower East Side, these acts of chesed stuck in these visitor's minds for over half a century. Rabbi Sacks wondered to himself why these people couldn't have told his father how much gratitude they had for him during his lifetime! Then he realized that such is the way of life - you simply can't know the extent of the good that you have done, even how much the little things matter, while you're alive. As such, we should never underestimate any little thing we do, and always consider every act and opportunity to help someone out with the greatest importance. You never know what might come of it.

On Shabbos day Rabbi Sacks gave the drasha after davening. He started off be saying this was a Pesach thought that we could take with us to use on the upcoming Yom Tov. A number of years ago when he and his wife were visiting a community in Hong Kong, they returned to their hotel after a long day and turned on the TV. They happened to be watching a show on the Discovery Channel about the palaces built during the era of Ramses II in Pi-Ramesses (IE Pisom and Ramses from Shemos). Rabbi Sacks was fascinated by the descriptions the narrator gave of the near-pristine condition of these vast, impressive structures.

After a few minutes, he stopped himself and thought: who built these anyway? Bnei Yisrael! Ramses II was supposedly the Pharoah during the Exodus. He imagined himself going back to that time 3300 years ago and introducing himself to Ramses the Great. He would say that he was a visitor from the distant future and wanted to share with him some good and bad news. The good news was that a certain people that exist now will still be well known the world over 33 centuries in the future. The bad news: it's those slaves that are working away constructing his magnificent monuments.

Rabbi Sacks went on to explain that the story of Yetzias Mitzayim does not relate just to Bnei Yisrael, but rather all of humanity, with Bnei Yisrael as the crowning jewel. He referenced the fact Martin Luther King Jr. referenced Moshe Rabbeinu's final speech to Bnei Yisrael in what was (tragically) his own final speech, regarding having seen the promised land, etc. It goes to show the influence that we've had across the people of the world, including spawning two other monotheistic religions. There is no doubt (and he spoke about this a bit more at Shalosh Seudos as well) that the Jewish people have been the inspiration and cause for so many world changing movements - it's impossible to deny the central significance of our existence.

At Shalosh Seudos Rabbi Sacks told us two amazing stories, both seemingly minor, but extremely impactful private moments from his career as as Chief Rabbi. He told us how Natan Sharansky once called him up on a Friday, asking for Rabbi Sacks to arrange a meeting between him and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams the following Sunday. Despite the difficulties of setting up a meeting on such short notice (Rabbi Sacks joked that this was an example of Israeli bitachon), that Sunday is the Archbishop's shabbos, it was the busiest Sunday ever for the Archbishop (the scandal of the orgination of a gay bishop in America had just taken place), the Archbishop agreed after a quick phone call.

Instead of discussing politics, Rabbi Sacks suggested that Sharansky talk about his little volume of Tehillim that he, as a secular Jew, had smuggled into prison at the suggestion of his wife when he was incarcerated by the Russian government. Rabbi Sacks said that his wife new that the little Tehillim "had some power to it," hence her suggestion. Unfortunately, the prison guards realized this as well and promptly confiscated it. After three years of protesting for its return, he received his little Tehillim back. However, Sharansky didn't know Hebrew. He was, however, a brilliant mathemetician and chess genius, so he treated Hebrew as a code to decifer, and slowly began to figure out what words and phrases meant.

Eventually, he taught himself enough to be able to read and understand a full sentence, which made him feel as though G-d Himself were speaking directly to him. The first sentence that Natan Sharansky understood was Tehillin 23:4 (from Mizmor L'David, which we sang right afterward) - "Gam ki elech bigei tzalmaves, lo irah ra ki ata imadi" - "though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death, I fear no evil, because You are with me." This was the story that Natan Sharansky shared with the Archbishop. Rabbi Sacks marvelled at how this basically secular Jew was teaching a lesson in faith to the Archbishop of Canterbury!

The second story was from 1995 when he was part of the official British delegation to the funeral of the late Yitzchak Rabin. Flying back on the plane in the ambassador section was Rabbi Sacks, then Prime Minister John Major, soon-to-be-the-next Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Prince Charles. Rabbi Sacks was supposed to sit next to Tony Blair (I think) but instead switched seats so that he could sit next to John Major - since the two political rivals had never shared such close quarters before. The seating was 2 pairs facing on another and another pair on the ends facing inward - so Rabbi Sacks was now sitting on the end, facing Prince Charles, and learning the weekly parsha from a mikraos gedolos.

Tony Blair noticed the sefer and asked him what it was, and remarked that he was fascinated by the format of the page layout - he had never seen a book with all sorts of different sections on a single page like that (not even the annotated Shakespeare which has 4 'perushim,' Rabbi Sacks joked). After explaining what it was and who all the commentators were, Tony Blair asked him (from the perspective of a good Christian) why is it that our book (the "Old Testament") is so much more interesting than their book (the "New Testament"). Rabbi Sacks replied it was because there is much more politics in ours (haha). Blair then requested that Rabbi Sacks teach them all something from what he was learning, and he proceeded to do so. Prince Charles rose from his seat and stood in the aisle for an hour listening to the impromptu shiur!

Rabbi Sacks was amazed at the power and influence that Jews have in the world, and quietly said to himself after he concluded: "Va'adabeira v'eidosecha neged malachim, v'lo eivosh" - "I will speak of Your testimonies before kings and not be ashamed" (Tehillim 119:46). He proceeded to tell us that we must be proud of who we are as frum Jews. In living our lives as examples of the Torah-observant lifestyle, we can truly influence the world at large.

As an interesting side-note, Rabbi Sacks also mentioned to Prince Charles that he was the first member of the royal family to visit Israel in an official capacity. Charle's father has visited the grave of Charle's paternal grandmother several times - she was a Greek Orthodox Christian who saved a number of Jews during the holocaust, and thus merited a special burial in Yerushalayim. So while they had been to her grave in the past, that was private and unrelated to their official position.

Anyway, it was such a pleasure to be around Rabbi Sacks and hear words of Torah from him. I greatly encourage anyone who has the opportunity to go to the Kollel Yom Rishon tomorrow (you'll need to register here) starting at 9:30 AM. Rabbi Sacks will actually be speaking at 10:30 AM on the topic of "A Seder Night That Changed History." I'm sure it will be fascinating!

Have a great week!


  1. Shades, that was a GREAT read. Thanks so much for sharing!
    I heard registration/seats for the Shabbaton got full in just a matter of a couple of minutes. Sounds like it was definitely well-worth i.t.

  2. Sefardi Gal - glad I can share some of Rabbi Sack's magic. I actually almost didn't quite make it to the Shabbaton myself through a series of circumstances, but thankfully it worked out in the end. His shiur today at the Kollel Yom Rishon was also fantastic as well!

  3. I'm glad you got to be there. Thank you for giving the rest of us a glimpse into the event!

    I usually read his articles in The Jewish Press; I find them very interesting.

  4. I was also going to post a blow-by-blow, but you were faster! Thanks for putting it up - your account is much more accurate than mine would have been, and I'm really grateful for your "notes" from this past Shabbos.

    By the way - I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment in the title of the post.

  5. Happy Medium - I certainly didn't quite get everything (and my memory is fading a bit already) - so if there is anything you recall that I left out, please feel free to contribute.

    I intentionally left out any description of the Lady Elaine "Queen" Esther Q & A - maybe you should write about that? Or shall I? My focus in the post was Rabbi Sacks, so I sort of left them out (perhaps unfairly).

  6. Depending on how productive I am tonight, I would be honored to take a stab at it. (And then would greatly appreciate any additions if you remember anything I will most likely forget)


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