On the Thursday between Shabbat Selichot and Rosh Hashanah, the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy (JKHA)/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (RKYHS) hosted An Evening With Yeshiva University (YU), featuring Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who spoke on “Accepting Responsibility: The Power of the Yamim Noraim.” A distinguished Professor of Judaic Thought at YU and New York University, Sacks was introduced by Rabbi Kenneth Brander, after a welcome by JKHA/RKYHS Head of School Rabbi Eliezer E. Rubin. The event was livestreamed so that people at home could watch and also learn about the power of the High Holidays.
Rubin announced this special and extraordinary event, thanking YU for “allowing us the privilege of hearing Rabbi Lord Sacks articulate the magic of Judaism.” Rubin said JKHA was proud to host the lecture on behalf of its community partners, naming various participating synagogues and rabbis.
Brander, Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University, introduced Sacks. Brander explained, “The Mishnah tells us if someone blows a shofar and it creates an echo, if you heard the actual sound you fulfilled your obligation, but if you heard the echo, the mitzvah of shofar is not fulfilled.” Expressing a deeper meaning, he added that the Mishnah tells us the obligation is fulfilled if you can still hear your true voice when the shofar is blown in a pit.
He explained, “There are challenges in life—we are distracted by noises and don’t pay attention to the sound of the shofar; we need to focus on what is important and hear the authentic sound of the shofar, not side noises.”
Introducing Sacks as a “thinker/philosopher,” Brander noted that his colleague “gives honor simply by being on campus; he is a moral voice.” Sacks, in turn, spoke of YU as a most incredible institution in the home of the Diaspora.
With a teeming rain outside, as well as it being a busy time in preparation for the High Holidays, many still came out for the event. Nechama Lowy, a senior at RKYHS, said her friend Jillian convinced her to attend, but she knows he [Sacks] is world-renowned. She felt it was “an opportunity you couldn’t miss.” Sacks endeared himself to the audience of varying ages by giving anecdotes from the greats of the world.
Sacks spoke with energy, enthusiasm and humor. He worked with four prime ministers, had dinners with leaders of European countries, yet when there was a decision on whether to accept their invitation or be at the opening of a Jewish day school, he took his place at the school, adding that “Jewish schools are the most important in the universe…the guarantor of a Jewish future.” Poignantly, he declared, “The whole universe depends on the sound of children.”
Moving on to discuss what Maimonides compiled as the Shloshah Asar Ikkarim, the Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith, Sacks explored the 14th Principle. Using clear examples, he stated that each one of us has free will. Sacks pointed out, the Rambam says nothing is predestined, and if we lacked free will, none of Judaism would make sense. He continued by saying that the Rambam says that’s what Judaism is about, explaining, for example, by giving tzedakah, a natural stinginess is converted to generosity. He added that the Rambam defines perfect repentance and says if you are in the exact position when you committed a sin, but correct yourself and don’t do it again, that shows free will.
Sacks spoke about those who epitomized the Jewish spirit. He motivated his listeners with awe-inspiring stories of human growth. When Viktor Frankl, M.D., Ph.D., was taken to Auschwitz, he dedicated his life to giving other prisoners in Auschwitz the will to live. The Nazis took everything from them, but couldn’t take their own freedom to decide how to respond.
Jill Bolte Taylor wrote “My Stroke of Insight,” after suffering a stroke in her 30s, which destroyed the left hemisphere of her brain. A Harvard neuroscientist, she dimly understood what was going on. Over eight years she worked with her mother to recover every one of her human faculties by recreating them from the left to the right hemisphere. This showed the plasticity of the brain and how it can change and reconfigure itself.
Judaism embraces freedom to grow as human beings, Sacks pointed out, adding that Jews reverse things…we attribute all of our successes to Hashem and all of our failures to ourselves. Come Rosh Hashanah and God says grow, Sacks explained, for as long as you continue to grow you stay young. He offered two examples: Lord Weidenfeld admitted most people start to think about slowing down at 92; at 92 you see the door beginning to close. Weidenfeld determined, “The older I get, the harder I have to work.” Upon asking a woman at 103 how she made it to that age, Sacks said she answered, “Never be afraid to learn something new.”
Looking to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the days in between, Sacks pointed out, “God knew no one is perfect, that’s why there’s teshuvah—simply admit your mistakes and from that comes moral strength. Say, ‘It was me, but forgive me.’” We must confess we are not perfect, to be honest with God. If we are honest enough to admit our failures, Hashem puts His arms around us, as He did to the most eloquent prophet in history, Moshe Rabbeinu.
When Moshe Rabbeinu felt he was a total failure, he said, “Kill me now, I can’t lead these people anymore.” God told him no. Moshe Rabbeinu, being totally humble, became a giant of strength. Sacks went on, since he didn’t blame anyone else, God lifted him from the pit of despair. Getting back to the 14th Principle of Faith, Sacks pointed out that we take blame and don’t accuse others. That, he insisted, is what makes Jews so remarkable.
Judaism has always been an extraordinary civilization, giving people the power to choose, thus Sacks suggested wittingly, “We should not call ourselves the chosen people…we are the choosing people.” Jews grow to accept responsibility, he insisted. Like any great rabbi, Sacks ended the inspirational and uplifting evening with a prayer. And like any good Brit, he quoted Shakespeare first, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
“Hashem has thrust greatness upon us. May He give us strength to grow and be a blessing to others,” he implored. What better words to start the new year?
Alexandra Sherman, a 2015 Kushner graduate, enjoyed the speech, “[I] liked the way it ended…there is always more to learn and we should always need to learn more.” Jillian Sperber, a current Kushner senior, learned that, “We need to take the power in our own hands to change.” Dr. Bernard Schanzer of West Orange, a well-respected neurologist, thought the program was an “excellent idea in preparation for the new year.” When asked what Sacks taught, he responded, “Responsibility and free choice and that for the coming year we have great responsibility to improve.”
By Sharon Mark Cohen