Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is a world-wide respected religious leader, the former chief rabbi of the English Commonwealth, the author of more than 30 books, and the winner of numerous prizes. His new book “Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas,” with a Foreword ‘”The Secret of Our Staying Power” by Bari Weiss, the award-winning author and op-ed editor and writer of the New York Times, introduces readers to a life changing Jewish idea from each of the more than 50 weekly biblical portions.
The life changing ideas
His goal, he writes, is to alter the way we feel and the way we act so that we change our lives and improve, gain courage, happiness and a life filled with blessing. Each article is about four pages long, easy to read, generally mentioning the ideas of other thinkers Jews and non-Jews, including psychologists, philosophers such as Nietzsche, authors such as Tolstoy, atheists, historians, sociologists and other professionals and thinkers, ancient and modern. He also refers to various books of the Bible and early and modern Jewish sources such as Midrashim, Mishna, Talmud, Jewish Codes of Law, Bible commentators such as Rashi. He ends each article with a short, usually two line “Life-Changing Idea, discussed in the article, 56 in all.
In the more than fifty articles, Lord Sacks discusses, among much else,
- “Why Isaac, not Ishmael? Why Jacob, not Esau? These are among the most searing questions in the whole of Judaism.”
- “What did Jacob add to the Jewish experience? What is it that we find in him that we do not find to the same measure in Abraham and Isaac?”
- Why are Jews winning “a disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes: over 20 percent of them from a group that represents 0.2 percent of the world population, an over-representation of 100 to one.”
- Is there a “kind of Jewish thinker one who contributes to the universe of knowledge, but does so in a recognizable Jewish way?”
- Joseph forgiving his brothers for selling him into slavery, “was the turning point in history. For this was the first recorded act of forgiveness in literature.”
- The Torah states in Exodus 7:3 that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. “If God was the cause and Pharaoh merely His passive vehicle, what was his sin? He had no choice, therefore no responsibility, therefore no culpability.” Why then was he punished?
- Why when Moses tells the Israelites that they will leave Egypt, he “does not talk about freedom? “Instead, he talks about education, specifically about the duty parents have [to educate] their children”
Samples of his Life-Changing Ideas are:
- We are fallible, therefore learn to grow from each mistake.
- We will not complete the journey; therefore inspire others to continue what we begin.
- Next time you meet someone radically unlike you, try seeing differences not as a threat but an enlarging, possibility-creating gift.
- To survive tragedy and trauma, first build the future; only then, remember the past.
- There are no fast tracks; lasting achievement takes time; you can never get there by the shortest road; the harder it gets, the stronger you become.
- If you seek to change anyone’s behavior, you have to enter into their mindset, and then say the word or do the deed that speaks to their emotions, not yours.
- When you experience suffering, the question to ask is, “Given this has happened, what should I do?” for this has an answer not of thought but of deed.
- The highest achievement is not self-expression but self-limitation: making space for something other and different from us.
- Each of us may have a task given to us by God; discerning that task, hearing God’s call, is what gives a life meaning and purpose.
- What you think of as your greatest weakness can become, if you wrestle with it, your greatest strength.
Readers of Lord Sack’s book will learn a lot, be prompted to think, and many reading the book will improve, as he desires.