Jew­ish Text

Judaism’s Life-Chang­ing Ideas: A Week­ly Read­ing of the Hebrew Bible

  • Review
By – February 25, 2021

Judaism remains a daz­zling­ly orig­i­nal way of think­ing about life,” Rab­bi Sacks sug­gests in the Intro­duc­tion to this col­lec­tion of week­ly read­ings on the Torah. In Judaism’s Life-Chang­ing Ideas: A Week­ly Read­ing of the Hebrew Bible, Rab­bi Sacks, for­mer Chief Rab­bi of the Unit­ed Hebrew Con­gre­ga­tions of the Com­mon­wealth, the author of over thir­ty books, and an inter­na­tion­al­ly rec­og­nized teacher, offers an anthol­o­gy of essays that probe the life-chang­ing ideas found in each Torah por­tion. Bari Weiss, in her Fore­word, asserts that the longevi­ty of the Jew­ish peo­ple, who should have dis­ap­peared long ago, a civ­i­liza­tion only capa­ble of being recalled, like those oth­ers, on Wikipedia,” has sur­vived not through polit­i­cal pow­er or phys­i­cal strength but because of its core ideas.

Each chap­ter of Rab­bi Sacks’s anthol­o­gy is ded­i­cat­ed to a sin­gle Torah por­tion and con­cludes with a sum­ma­rized idea for fur­ther reflec­tion. These bib­li­cal themes are con­nect­ed to sources, both Jew­ish and sec­u­lar, which will lead the read­er into deep­er explo­ration. In the chap­ter Vayehi, the final por­tion of Gen­e­sis, which recounts Joseph’s rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with his broth­ers, Rab­bi Sacks explores the peren­ni­al chal­lenge of offer­ing and accept­ing for­give­ness. He dis­tin­guish­es Joseph’s atti­tude toward his broth­ers’ mis­treat­ment of him to the meet­ing between Jacob and Esau sev­er­al chap­ters before. Jacob’s actions are under­stood to be more an act of appease­ment than for­give­ness. While Joseph’s broth­ers fear reprisal, Joseph makes it clear (Gen­e­sis 50:19 – 21) that he seeks to for­give as he reas­sures them and speaks kind­ly to them.” Joseph’s gen­eros­i­ty of spir­it, Rab­bi Sacks sug­gests, is pos­si­ble because Joseph has come to rec­og­nize that God’s prov­i­dence was behind every­thing that transpired.

Rab­bi Sacks’s analy­sis does not end there. He also rec­og­nizes that the Joseph nar­ra­tive intro­duces a dif­fer­ent way of deal­ing with con­flict, stat­ing that Judaism rep­re­sents, for the first time in his­to­ry, a moral­i­ty of guilt rather than shame.” In shame-based cul­tures, wrong­do­ing is under­stood as a per­ma­nent stain on the offend­er and rep­re­sen­ta­tive of his or her immutable flaw which can­not be for­giv­en. In guilt-based cul­tures, a sep­a­ra­tion is made between a per­son and their actions, allow­ing the offend­er to express remorse, seek for­give­ness, make amends, and change for the bet­ter. Rab­bi Sacks’s analy­sis of Vayehi con­tin­ues with a cri­tique of a con­tem­po­rary West­ern soci­ety that has regressed to a shame cul­ture, despite its roots in the Judeo-Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion. The chap­ter con­cludes by artic­u­lat­ing Life-Chang­ing Idea #12: Judaism allows us to inhab­it a cul­ture of grace and hope. If we work hard enough on our­selves, we can be forgiven.”

Judaism’s Life-Chang­ing Ideas is a thought-pro­vok­ing book that could be read in a sin­gle sit­ting. How­ev­er, it is prob­a­bly best read by devot­ing one week to each chap­ter as the Torah is read. This allows the read­er to digest its impor­tant mes­sages through­out the year and pro­vides an acces­si­ble path for explor­ing Judaism’s great­est ideas and ideals.

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions