What I Learned from Rabbi Sacks

Published in Hakol Nishma, Shabbat March 17-18, in Honor of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks' Visit to Kohelet Yeshiva

I still vividly remember the lunch and learn. A group of advanced students at Yeshiva University, all of us members of the Kollel Elyon, had gathered for a special event featuring then-Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. As young people with our own leadership aspirations, it was a unique opportunity for us to hear a few words from this luminary and raise any questions that were on our minds.

At one point, one of the students asked Rabbi Sacks how he keeps himself continuously inspired. He looked us in the eyes and said: “Well, for one thing, I read 250 books each year.” We were aware of Rabbi Sacks’ remarkably wide-ranging mastery of multiple disciplines, but we were stunned nonetheless. Somehow, Rabbi Sacks managed to read 250 books a year while serving as Great Britain’s Chief Rabbi and a global Jewish ambassador. Noticing the stunned silence, Rabbi Sacks added with a twinkle in his eyes: “Oh, and I try and write a book each year.” The lesson the Chief Rabbi sought to impart was clear: no matter how busy life becomes, we need to continue investing long and hard in our own intellectual and spiritual growth. If Rabbi Sacks could get through roughly five books a week and produce a book a year, adjusting downward, we could probably manage to read and publish a little bit throughout the course of our own careers.

And while I don’t know what models inspired Rabbi Sacks’ impressive commitment to lifelong learning and productivity, I can say with confidence that there is biblical precedent for his example in Parshat Ki Tissa.

Following the sin of the Golden Calf, the Torah teaches us that Moshe “pitched his tent outside the camp, far from the camp, calling it the Tent of Meeting. Anyone who sought after God went out to the Tent of Meeting” (Shemot 33:7-8). Why did Moshe remove his tent specifically at this moment in time? Many commentators, including some midrashim, Rashi and others, suggest that as a result of their sin, the Jewish people had been excommunicated from the divine presence. To enjoy continued contact with God, therefore, Moshe was required to relocate. This explanation, however, is difficult. The continuation of the chapter describes the manner in which Moshe’s face shone from his encounter with the divine, to the extent that God “spoke to him face to face as a human would speak to his friend” (33:11). If the emphasis in the story is on the Jews’ distancing from Hashem, of what relevance is Moshe’s enhanced relationship with God?

An alternative solution may be on the basis of a series of interpretations suggested by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher in his classic midrashic compendium Torah Sheleima. Midrash HaGadol, for instance, asserts that Moshe sought to establish of a place of learning following the construction of the Tabernacle: “Moshe said to God: ‘We have performed the work for the Tabernacle; what more should we do now?’ God said to him, ‘Go establish study for the Tabernacle.’ This is the meaning of the verse, ‘And Moshe will take the tent - this is Moshe’s study hall.’ ” A midrash cited in Torah Sheleima proposes a similar motif: “Witness the heroism of Moshe, who took the tent alone; this is the tent of wisdom in which he taught the Jewish people.” On both accounts, Moshe sought not to flee the people’s impurity but to establish a new house of study.

Reading these midrashic accounts in light of the Golden Calf narrative, we can propose an alternative explanation for Moshe’s decision to cast his tent outside the camp. Consider the events that preceded this decision. After Moshe had spent forty days and night absorbing divine wisdom, he descends the mountain only to witness the Jews having lowered themselves to the depths of depravity. God threatens to decimate the Jewish people, and Moshe just barely convinces Hashem to avert His decree. Moshe shatters the tablets and castigates the people. Along with the Levites, he is compelled to execute approximately 3,000 men. The next day, Moshe returns to God and entreats Him for mercy. God again thunders against the Jews, leaving their fate suspended in uncertainty and the matter unresolved. Considering this series of events, Moshe must have been utterly spent, even overwhelmed. The amount of emotional energy he had expended in a mere twenty-four hours was all but superhuman. Following the aforementioned Midrash HaGadol, moreover, the events of the Golden Calf might have also come on the heels of the exhausting process of constructing the Tabernacle.

It is at this key moment that Moshe pitches his tent outside the camp. Why now? Moshe, self-aware as he was, recognized that he desperately needed to recharge his spiritual batteries. To continue inspiring the Jewish people, he was required to set boundaries and establish personal learning goals. Thus, he founded a semi-private beit midrash. True, those who sought knowledge were able to visit and benefit from his wisdom. Still, this act of temporary isolation ultimately allowed Moshe to better fulfill his mission as a leader and teacher.

Indeed, commenting on the need for the people to leave the camp to learn with Moshe, Baal HaTurim suggests, drawing on Midrash Tanchuma, that “from here [we learn] that a person must be exiled in order to study Torah.” What is true for Moshe is true for the entire nation. Sometimes we all need to “unplug” and leave behind our mundane, everyday concerns, and invest in our intellectual and spiritual development.

The take-home is clear. We may not merit to speak to God “face to face,” nor, in a very different vein, read voraciously and publish prolifically. Still, following the more modest goals set by the Jews who sought Moshe’s Torah, we desperately need to prioritize personal growth. Whether we are students, parents, teachers, administrators or at-large members of the community, being sure to allocate time for our personal growth is not a luxury; it is essential to our lifelong development as Bnei and Bnot Torah. This model was initially set by Moshe, and it is this lifelong lesson that I was privileged to learn from Rabbi Sacks.