Reflections on Chabad Kinus Shluchim from an “Outsider”

To say I felt a sense of amazement is an understatement.  The siyum HaShas doesn’t compare (even though davening with 20000 Jews in one place is an experience as well).  Sitting in a room with almost all of Chabad’s shluchim was unbelievable.  It is hard to imagine the grandeur of the dinner (see this video to get an idea).  The highlight of the event was the speech from Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.  For thos who have not seen it or read the transcript, I highly recommend it, both for what he says and for the way he says it.

…It is a story in three acts; the first took place in 1968, when I was a second year student, a sophomore, at university. I had already encountered Chabad, because Rabbi Shmuel Lew and Rabbi Faivish Vogel visited Cambridge. They were among the very first to go out to university campuses and I was one of the very first beneficiaries. They came that summer, ’68 and I came to America to meet great Rabbis of the day, and every one of them, every single rov[rabbinical leader] I met in America said, “You must see the Rebbe! You must see the Rebbe.”

So I went to Eastern Parkway, 770, I came in; I said to the first Chassid I met, “I’d like to speak to the Rebbe, please.” He fell about laughing.

He said, “Do you know how many thousands of people are waiting to see the Rebbe? Forget it!”

I said, “Well, I’ll be traveling around America, here is the phone number of my aunt in Los Angeles, if its possible phone me.”

Weeks later, I was in Los Angeles, came motzoei Shabbat, the phone went, it was Chabad, “The Rebbe will see you on Thursday.”

I had no money in those days, and all I had was a Greyhound bus ticket, if you’ve ever ridden from Los Angeles to New York on a Greyhound bus… Seventy two hours nonstop I sat on this bus.

I came to 770, and eventually the moment came when I was ushered into the Rebbe’s study. I asked him all my intellectual, philosophical questions; he gave intellectual, philosophical answers, and then he did what no one else had done.

He did a role reversal, he started asking me questions. How many Jewish students are in Cambridge? How many get involved in Jewish life? What are you doing to bring other people in?

Now, I hadn’t come to become a Shliach [Chabad-Lubavitch emissary]. I’d come to ask a few simple questions, and all of a sudden he was challenging me. So I did the English thing. You know, the English can construct sentences like nobody else, you know? They can construct more complex excuses for doing nothing, than anyone else on earth. (laughter)

So I started the sentence, “In the situation in which I find myself…” – and the Rebbe did something which I think was quite unusual for him, he actually stopped me in mid-sentence. He says, “Nobody finds themselves in a situation; you put yourself in a situation. And if you put yourself in that situation, you can put yourself in another situation.”

That moment changed my life.

Here I was, a nobody from nowhere, and here was one of the greatest leaders in the Jewish world challenging me not to accept the situation, but to change it. Here I was, a nobody from nowhere, and here was one of the greatest leaders in the Jewish world challenging me not to accept the situation, but to change it. And that was when I realized what I have said many times since: That the world was wrong. When they thought that the most important fact about the Rebbe was that here was a man with thousands of followers, they missed the most important fact: That a good leader creates followers, but a great leader creates leaders.
That’s what the Rebbe did for me and for thousands of others.

Friends, that particular episode had an unusual ending: I was due to leave the States, go back to England, on my charter flight on a Sunday at the end of August, beginning of September, I can’t remember exactly when. So the day before, on Shabbos, there was a big farbreng[en], and the Chassidim told me, “You’re going back to England? Take a bottle of vodka, go up to the Rebbe in a niggun, during the farbrengen, and he’ll zog a le’chaim, and you’ll take it with you and that’ll be the Rebbe’s vodka.”

So in the middle of the farbrengen, thousands of people there, I went up to the Rebbe and asked him to say a le’chaim, and he looked at me with surprise. He said, “You’re going?”

I said, “Yes.”

He said, “Why?”

I said, “I have to get back to Cambridge, the term is beginning.”

He turned to me and he said, “But the Cambridge term does not begin until October.”

I never knew then, I still don’t know today how he knew it, but he was right! He said to me, “I think you should stay for Rosh Hashanah.” So he said a le’chaim; I went back.

Everyone around me wanted to know, “What did the Rebbe say to you? What did the Rebbe say?” So I told them what the Rebbe said. I didn’t know – if the Rebbe says stay, it’s the polite thing, you say thank you very much – I didn’t realize; if the Rebbe said stay, you stay. So I stayed.

As a result of which, I heard the Rebbe on Rosh Hashanah blow shofar. Quite the most remarkable experience I ever had. The purity of those notes, the sight of all the Chassidim hanging from every surface, trying to catch sight of the Rebbe blowing shofar. And I heard a sound in which heaven and earth touched. And the echoes of that shofar have stayed with me ever since. That was the challenge he threw down. A challenge to lead.

That didn’t immediately change my life. I went back to University, although I still felt the power of the Rebbe’s challenge. So in 1969 after getting my degree, I went to study in Kfar Chabad, where I learned with Rav Gafni, and it was a wonderful experience. In 1970 I came back, got married, started teaching philosophy, writing a doctorate, but I still felt I hadn’t done enough to meet the Rebbe’s challenge. So I studied for smicha. I qualified as a rabbi, and I thought that’s it. I’ve grown a little as a Jew, and now I’m ready to get back with the rest of my life.

That was when I made the second great mistake – I went back to see the Rebbe again. (laughter)

January 1978: My friends in Lubavitch told me exactly what to do. You put your question in writing, you give the Rebbe options; one, two, three, and the Rebbe will tell you, the one or two or three. So I set out my options. I said to the Rebbe, “I have a career in front of me, I have three choices.” Number one, maybe I would like to be an academic – halevai one day I would be a professor or maybe a fellow of my college in Cambridge. Or number two – I went to university initially to study economics – I’d like to be an economist. Or number three, I’d like to be a barrister, an advocate. I was a member of one of the Inns of Court, the Inner Temple where you study to be a lawyer.

I went in to the yechidus [private audience] not knowing what the Rebbe would answer, would it be one, would it be two, would it be three? The Rebbe looked at me and he went through the list; not one, not two, not three.

I thought, “Hang on, this is against the rules!”

The Rebbe did not give me time to reply. He told me Anglo Jewry was short of Rabbis, and therefore he said to me, “You must train Rabbis.” He specified Jews College, where rabbis were trained in Britain. And then he said, you yourself must become a congregational Rabbi, so that your students will come and they will hear you give – I still remember the way he pronounced the word – “Sermons”. They will hear you give sermons and they will learn. He said you say you will train rabbis and you will become a rabbi. Well, I was a little farblonged – a word I’ve introduced into the English language courtesy of the BBC – but if the Rebbe says do it, I did it. I gave up my three ambitions, I trained rabbis, I taught in Jews College, eventually I became head of Jews College, and I became a congregational rabbi, in Golders Green and Marble Arch.

You know, a funny thing happened.

Having given up all my three ambitions, having decided to walk in the complete opposite direction, a funny thing happened. I did become a fellow of my college in Cambridge. I did become a professor. In fact, this year I have three professorships; one in Oxford University, two in London University. I did deliver Britain’s top two economics lectures, the Mais lecture and the Hayek lecture, and Inner Temple made me an honorary barrister and invited me to give a law lecture in front of six hundred barristers, the Lord Chancellor – the highest lawyer in Britain, and Princess Anne who’s the Master.

You know, you never lose anything – by putting yiddishkeit first.

And I learned something very deep: Sometimes the best way of achieving your ambitions is to stop pursuing them, and let them pursue you.

The Rebbe did something absolutely extraordinary; he said to himself: if the Nazis searched out every Jew in hate, we will search out every Jew in love. And that was act two. Act three was in 1990. Anglo Jewry was looking for a new Chief Rabbi. It was clear that I was going to be one of the candidates. But I wasn’t sure that I was right for the job or the job was right for me. And so, I sat down with my family, with Elaine, with my children, and they agreed to permit me to write to the Rebbe and ask his advice.

I set out the tzdodim lekan u’lekan – the pros and cons of the job, and the Rebbe wrote a most extraordinary reply, a brilliant reply, without using a single word.

You know that the Rebbe, before he was Rebbe, ran the Chabad publishing house – Kehot – and as a result he knew – I’ve written twenty four books and I don’t know these things yet, but he knew the typographical symbols that are used by proofreaders. So towards the end of the letter having set out the pros and cons, I wrote the sentence, “If they offer me the job, should I accept?” This was the Rebbe’s reply: The typographical symbol for reverse word order. Instead of saying, “Should I?” The answer is, “I should.”

So, thirteen years to the day after I became a congregational rabbi I became Chief Rabbi, and in that job I have tried to the best of my ability – if I succeeded I don’t know – but I tried to do what I know the Rebbe would have wanted me to do: To build schools, to improve Anglo Jewish education, to reach out, and to make – not followers – but leaders.

And I did one other thing, which was a little bit unusual, and I want to explain to you, now, why.

I never said this in public before. There was a point when I was a little involved – the hanhola [board of directors] in Lubavitch in London asked me just to get involved a little bit – there was a point in the 1970s and 80s, when the Rebbe developed a very interesting campaign – the sheva mitzvos benei noach campaign – to reach out not just to Jews, but also to non Jews.

I realized that in my new position as Chief Rabbi I could do just that. So I started broadcasting on the BBC, on radio, on television, writing for the national press. I wrote books read my non Jews as well as Jews and the effect was absolutely extraordinary. The more I spoke the more they wanted to hear – which certainly proves they weren’t Jewish. (Laughter.) The more I wrote the more they wanted to read, and you know what that experience told me – not only the wisdom, the vast foresight of the Rebbe in understanding that the world was ready to hear a Jewish message – but it taught me something else as well. And I want you never to forget these words.

Non Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism.

And non Jews are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.

The Rebbe taught us how to fulfill verau kol amei haaretz ki shem hashem nikra alecha. Let all the world see we are never ashamed to stand tall as Jews…

I find it amazing to think that R. Sack’s approach to universalism and teaching the world is directly attributed to R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson זצ”ל.  Those of us who own the work Torah Studies were aware of the connection, but to hear it so vividly and so movingly really sheds a new light on R. Sack’s career.

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