Time for Reflection

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:31 pm on 30th October 2002.

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Dr Jonathan Sacks (Chief Rabbi):

Presiding Officer, it is a great privilege to have been invited by you to lead this moment of reflection. I do so with great warmth and sense of moment, first, because Edinburgh is the home of the Scottish enlightenment and of two figures who have been an enormous influence on me—Adam Fergusson and Adam Smith; secondly, because Scotland's religious history was shaped by the idea central to the Hebrew Bible—that of social covenant, not just social contract; and thirdly, because it allows me to pay tribute to the wonderful and, I hope, mutually enriching relationship that exists between Scottish society and its proud and distinguished Jewish community. Quite the nicest thing that has happened to me in the past few years is that my son married a Scottish lass, so I feel by marriage part of the family.

When we sit in this exalted chamber, dealing with matters that will affect many people's lives, what is the right relationship between power and people? I take as my text a moving statement by a great rabbi of the third century—Rabbi Johanan. We as Jews recite this passage every Saturday night as the day of rest ends and we prepare ourselves to re-engage with the world.

Rabbi Johanan said:

"Wherever you find mentioned the greatness of God, there too you will find mentioned His humility. Thus it is written in the Torah, 'For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords' and immediately afterwards it says, 'He upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.' It says in the Prophets, 'Thus speaks the High and exalted One ... I live in a high and holy place' and immediately afterwards it says, 'but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and the heart of the contrite.' A third time it says in the holy writings: 'Sing to God, sing praises to His name, extol Him who rides the clouds' and immediately afterwards it says, 'Father of the fatherless, a judge of widows, is God in His holy habitation.'"

Rabbi Johanan's statement tells us that true greatness, even for God—how much more so for us—is not to be above people but to be with them, alongside them, hearing their silent cry, sharing their distress and bringing comfort to the afflicted and dignity to the deprived.

As we face the 21st century with its formidable challenges, let us remember the truth of history: that civilisations survive not by strength, but by how they respond to the weak; not by wealth, but by the care that they show for the poor; not by power, but by their concern for the powerless. The ironic yet utterly humane lesson of history is that what renders a culture invulnerable is the compassion that it shows the vulnerable.

May the Almighty be with you in all your deliberations, granting you a spirit of wisdom and understanding, and may he spread his blessing of peace over you and all those you serve.