Persuade, Don't Preach

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Earlier, this week, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks addressed an assembly of the high schools of our community. He was introduced beautifully by ninth grader Jonah Tripp who said, “To me, Rabbi Sacks is known as a permanent fixture in my home. His books line our shelves and our family so often quotes him at our table; his perspectives, Divrei Torah and thoughts are so pervasive throughout my home that it seems as though Rabbi Sacks spends every Shabbos meal with us.” Jonah went on to articulate the excitement and enthusiasm that not only he, but also his classmates and friends, felt in anticipation of hearing Rabbi Sacks. “I want to thank my Bubbies and my Zaidies and my parents for showing me that it is not a sports star nor a political leader, but rather the meeting of a Torah scholar of our generation that ignites such excitement.”


Last year I spoke with a young man who proudly identifies as a Jew and a staunch Zionist but has abandoned most of an observant lifestyle, despite having completed twelve years of Jewish education and having been raised in an observant home. During our fascinating exchange I asked him what, if anything, would change his mind about the direction of his life. He answered, “The only person in the universe who I think could inspire me to keep Shabbos once again is Rabbi Sacks. After a meeting with him, I would likely return to an observant life.”


There is no question that Rabbi Sacks is brilliant. He has written twenty-five books, holds sixteen honorary degrees, has a seat in the House of Lords, was knighted by the Queen, is a regular on the BBC, and his thoughts on the Parsha are quoted at Shabbos tables and from pulpits in shuls around the world every single Shabbos. Rabbi Sacks is not only revered in the Jewish world, he is highly acclaimed and admired in the United Kingdom and around the world.


At a gala dinner marking his retirement from serving as Chief Rabbi, Tony Blair described him as "an intellectual giant ... He is somebody who … has made an extraordinary, outstanding contribution, not just to British and International Jewry, but to British and International public life." Gordon Brown asked, "How do you sum up someone who is the greatest scholar you know, the greatest philosopher, the greatest writer you know, one of the greatest thinkers in the world?"


What is so special about Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks that inspires incredible excitement from a ninth grader and his classmates? What is it about the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom that makes a young man confident that after one interaction he would be motivated to transform his lifestyle and to grow spiritually? Why do so many in the Jewish and non-Jewish world alike find him so intriguing, compelling, and inspiring?


In September of 1991, at his Installation address as Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Sacks called for a decade of renewal based on five central values: "love of every Jew, love of learning, love of God, a profound contribution to British society, and an unequivocal attachment to Israel. Indeed, looking back over twenty years later, these are exactly the themes that have permeated Rabbi Sacks’s writings and have attracted so many to follow him.


I submit to you that Rabbi Sacks’s great impact and influence are not the result of his profundity, perspicacity and scholarship alone, but as or more importantly, result from his consistently positive messaging, optimistic outlook, and highly attractive vision.


Our rabbis have taught, divrei Chachamim, b’nachas nishma’im, the words of the scholars are embraced when delivered softly and gently. Additionally, they taught, Chachamim hizharu b’divreichem, scholars must be exceedingly measured with their words. Rabbi Sacks is an outstanding role model in heeding this wise advice and as a result, his messages are consistently heard.


Chazal understood that people are never motivated to change their minds or behaviors because of rhetoric, name-calling, vitriol, condemnations, or sweeping generalizations. When that language is employed, nobody is swayed. Those who were previously in agreement with the position being presented are already on board. Those that don’t agree, upon hearing the manner in which the idea is presented, simply disengage and stop listening, thereby precluding any possibility of being persuaded.


Communicating effectively and meaningfully requires dignity, nuance, refinement and words that are both measured and delicately scripted. Rabbi Sacks has mastered this style and the results are astounding. When we have the privilege of hearing him speak in our Shul this Shabbos, I urge you to not only listen to the content of his talks, but to pay close attention to the manner in which he delivers them..


Each week brings with it unfolding events that draw strong feelings and thoughts from us all. Who doesn’t have opinions about issues ranging from the announcement of executive action on immigration, the recent horrific terrorist attack in Israel, the events in Ferguson, the failed negotiations with Iran, to the setting of the thermostat in Shul.


If we want to not only talk, but to be persuasive and have our words considered in shaping others opinions, we would do well to follow the advice of chazal and the example of Rabbi Sacks and be thoughtful, careful, measured, and dignified when sharing all of our opinions.