Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks returned to the Kohelet Yeshiva Beit Midrash for a Shabbat Shel Ruach services this weekend. On Shabbat morning, he gave a drasha on “The Idols in Our Lives: Contemporary Echoes of the Golden Calf.” His opening joke to warm up the overflow audience was an anecdote from when he was appointed a knight of the British realm: Given the Jews’ stiff-necked nature and disinclination to bow, Buckingham Palace prepared a special lecturn (like the shtender used for Torah readings) that Sacks could rest his hand and incline about 15 degrees. Upon observing this unusual behavior, the Queen turned to her husband, Prince Philip, and asked, “Why is this knight different from all others?”
Modern society is one where people know the price of everything but the value of nothing, quoted Rabbi Sacks. This focus on material acquisition leads to a perpetual state of dissatisfaction, by focusing on what we lack– the latest model car, smartphone, or other fashionable item. This instability leads to a state of anger, which fuels the popular unrest across the world.
Two days before the colossal economic crash of 2008, the prominent Sothesby auction house raised $198 million for the artist Damien Hirst, breaking the record for a one-artist auction. The most expensive piece: The Black Sheep with the Golden Horn. Rabbi Sacks called this the Golden Calf that heralded the economic woes.
What is the Torah’s antidote to the Golden Calf? The text immediately before and after the mention of the icon of idol worship explicitly states the divine gift of Shabbat, the sacred time that removes us from the secular state of being. Shabbat offers three important features that counters our immersion in contemporary values; Family, Community, and Disengagement.
Rabbi Sacks participated in a BBC program on the modern family, in which he invited the noted child development expert, Penelope Leach, to visit a Jewish nursery school. On a Friday morning, the children were engaged in their weekly Shabbat party, in which five-year-olds portrayed the roles of Imma, Abba, the children, and Bubbe and Zeide. When Dr. Leach queried a young boy playing Abba for the day: what was the best and worst aspect of Shabbat. The boy cited, not watching television was the worst, but the best being that it was the only time, his father didn’t rush off to work. Dr. Leach turned to Rabbi Sacks and pointed that out as the reason that the boy’s parents’ marriage was sustained.
Community is the place where your name is known and your absence is noted, quoted Rabbi Sacks. Wherever he visits, after his presentation, he is always asked the same question: “I know who you are, Rabbi, but do you know me?” The person would invariably have a personal connection, however tenuous. “Two Jews meet as strangers and find out that they’re mishpocha,” quipped the Rabbi.
Disengagement on Shabbat is when we leave behind the deadlines and worries of the secular world for a sacred time in which we spend in appreciating what we already have. We learn to appreciate God, Family, and Community. A woman from the Bay area in California, the heart of Silicon Valley, reported to Rabbi Sacks that modern technology has been the downfall of good relationships. She related that their solution was a technology-free day, which we Jews know as Shabbat. The value of Shabbat has even charmed the Archbishop (of York? Not Canterbury) who spent the full 25 hours of a traditional Shabbat with Rabbi Sacks and his wife Elaine in London, who said that the devaluation of the Christian Sabbath has led to the dissolution of the family in Great Britain.
Rabbi Sacks was invited to the President’s National Prayer Breakfast where he met up with a friend and he asked what was the mood in the country? The friend (a Jew who was not identified) replied, It’s like being the man on the deck of the Titanic [on its way to being hit by the fatal iceberg]. The man is holding a glass of whisky and bemoaning, “I only asked for some ice.”
Rabbi Sacks has authored over 30 books, the most recent being Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, published in February.