Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks recently returned for another visit to Kohelet Yeshiva, the Modern Orthodox high school in Merion Station, for Shabbat services, and gave a drasha (sermon) entitled “The Idols in Our Lives: Contemporary Echoes of the Golden Calf.” The legendary British rabbi served in London for over 20 years as the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. He has received numerous awards and honors — including the prestigious Templeton Prize — and has written more than 30 books.
At Kohelet Yeshiva, Rabbi Sacks warmed up the overflow audience with a joke based on 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, or stand, used for Torah readings) that inclined about 15 degrees, where Sacks could rest his hand. Upon observing this unusual behavior, the queen turned to her husband, Prince Philip, and asked, “Why is this knight different from all others?”
During his sermon, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde in “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” Rabbi Sacks said, “Modern society is one where people know the price of everything but the value of nothing.” Our emphasis on material acquisition leads to a perpetual state of dissatisfaction, by causing us to focus on what we lack, such as the latest car, smartphone or other fashionable item. The resulting instability leads to a state of anger, fueling 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 Golden Calf.” 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 this 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 counter our immersion into the materialistic culture of today: 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 family roles of imma (mother), abba (father) and children, as well as bubbe (grandmother) and zeide (grandfather). Dr. Leach asked a young boy playing abba to identify the best and worst aspects of Shabbat. The boy cited not watching television as the worst part; the best part, he said, was that Shabbat was the only time his father didn’t rush off to work. Dr. Leach turned to Rabbi Sacks and pointed out that Shabbat was also what sustained the marriage of the boy’s parents.
In discussing community, Rabbi Sacks quoted, from a source of uncertain origin, “Community is the place where your name is known and your absence is noted.” 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 questioner invariably has a personal connection with the rabbi, 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 spent 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 her solution was a technology-free day, which we Jews know as Shabbat. The value of Shabbat has even charmed the Archbishop of York, who spent the full 25 hours of a traditional Shabbat with Rabbi Sacks and his wife, Elaine, in London. The archbishop said that the devaluation of the Christian Sabbath has led to the dissolution of the family in Great Britain.
Despite the seriousness of his message, Rabbi Sacks never fails to inject humor into his sermons. During the Shabbat service at Kohelet Yeshiva, the rabbi talked about being invited to President Trump’s National Prayer Breakfast in early February, where he met up with a friend. The rabbi asked his friend, a Jew who was not identified, about the mood in the country. The friend replied that it was like being on the deck of the Titanic, holding a glass of whiskey as the ship was about to hit the fatal iceberg, and bemoaning, “I only asked for some ice.”
This article originally appeared as an entry in Hannah Lee’s blog, A Cultural Mix.