It's Not About You
Years ago, I went to meet the great halachic possek and teacher, Rabbi David Feinstein zt”l. I hoped to study at his yeshiva, aiming to prepare myself for a life of outreach to young Jews in Europe. I was nervous about the meeting, knowing Rabbi Feinstein was so important, and I was about to take up some of his valuable time explaining my story.
Over an hour later I emerged from Rabbi Feinstein’s office, convinced that I had met an exceptionally chatty person. We had discussed countless subjects of seemingly mutual interest. I felt happy and completely at ease, although I did wonder whether I would have time to learn enough in yeshiva, with a Head who liked chatting that much.
I came to learn quickly there was no cause for concern. Rabbi Feinstein was in fact a man of few words. My first conversation with him was our longest by far. He had spoken with me at length that first day because that was what I needed. And what I needed determined his behaviour. Like the Lubavitcher Rebbe in his first meeting with Rabbi Sacks, his humility was reflected in this behaviour.
Once he became Chief Rabbi, I had the privilege of observing Rabbi Sacks on a number of occasions in various settings: public lectures, group discussions, meetings, and dinners. He was easily capable of dominating any of those contexts with the power of his presence. And he often did. It seemed to me, however, that he was able to turn on and off the power of his presence. Whenever it was needed, he turned it on. And whenever it was not, he turned it off. This accords perfectly with this week’s message as written by Rabbi Sacks. In his words,
“Humility is the self turned outward.” It is the understanding that “it’s not about you”.
It is extremely rare that a person who can dominate almost any setting with the power of his words and the clarity of his thinking, never gets carried away by this power. But Rabbi Sacks seemed to have no need to do so. He did not speak because he wanted to speak. He did not captivate a room because it made him feel good. He did so because there was a message to be delivered, a thought to be shared, a Kiddush Hashem to be made. This was true humility, and true greatness.
A Closer Look
Rabbi Spinner shares some of the deeper ideas he learnt from Rabbi Sacks.
Which idea in this week’s piece do you think is the most important?
This week Rabbi Sacks challenges us to examine what forms the centre of our respective worlds. If we are too self-obsessed, we are in trouble. When we can look beyond ourselves, the path to purpose and impact becomes much clearer.
Furthermore, it is easier to listen to a humble speaker, learn from a humble teacher, and follow a humble leader. In this sense, placing God at the centre of my world and thereby boxing myself out of that centre is an immense service to myself. Why would I not do that?
All too often, we focus on what God demands, rather than what God offers. This reflection on humility, on making one’s life about something other than oneself, provides a great opportunity to reflect on the huge practical upside of living life with God.
What influence did Rabbi Sacks have on your worldview?
Through the breadth of his scholarship and the clarity of his expression, Rabbi Sacks taught me that there may be many different disciplines, traditions, and perspectives, but there is only one world, one arena of human endeavor. Figuring out how to best understand, structure, and utilize this arena is therefore an effort to which countless people throughout the ages have contributed. Weaving these contributions together in a matrix of meaning the way Rabbi Sacks did almost magically with his pierces on the weekly Torah reading is therefore a deeply religious and important ability, and an aspirational one.