Memories, and a mandate…
I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks last Shabbat. What a tremendous loss to the world as he was a giant of an intellect, prolific writer, profound scholar, teacher and orator. He was Britain’s former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991-2013 and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2005. He was a leading Orthodox rabbi who spoke about the importance of all faiths and had an unusual background to be so educated in both western thought as well as Jewish tradition.
What I found fascinating about his educational background is that he attended Christian primary schools and early on that laid a foundation for engaging diverse ideas and systems of thought. Yet, as a college student in the mid-60s, it was a meeting with Rabbi Schneerson who challenged him with how to lead, and was one of the main catalysts for his commitment to the rabbinate. Rabbi Sacks was ordained in 1976.
Ben Zoma says, “Who is wise? He who learns from every man.” This was Sacks’s belief in his search for excellence. His daughter once said, “ The more he knows, the more he wants to learn.” This was certainly one of his attributes.
Rabbi Sacks was able to make very complex ideas relatable, and even poetic. He wrote in The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, “Faith is the defeat of probability by the power of possibility.” He was awarded the Templeton Prize, which, according to the website, honors individuals whose exemplary achievements advance Sir John Templeton’s philanthropic vision, “harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose with in it.” Rabbi Sacks stood out with other award recipients such as Mother Teresa, Archbishop Despond Tutu, and the 14th Dali Lama.
Any one of these talents would be noteworthy in their own right, however, I would like to focus on his role as a father, as shared by his daughter, Gila Sacks, in her emotional and thought provoking eulogy.
She articulated two critical things that her father had given her. First, he taught her that all problems are solvable and things can always be changed. He raised her and her siblings with the notion that nothing was inevitable and no problem was too big for people to solve. She also shared that he emphasized that we have the ability and responsibility to make a difference, not be passive observers.
Rabbi Sacks died on the Shabbat when we read Parshat Vayera. Quite an irony, I must say. In his writings on this parsha he made note that Abraham had the courage to challenge G-d as he is about to pass judgment on the people of Sodom. Abraham says:
“Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” (Gen.18:23-25)
Sacks contended that the “Jews do not accept the world that is. They challenge it in the name of the world that ought to be.” This is what Rabbi Sacks taught his children and all of us, that “leaders take personal responsibility, take moral responsibility and take collective responsibility.”
Secondly, Gila shared that Rabbi Sacks made space for his children to be themselves. “He gave us space to become us, not him.” What a beautiful gift to grow in a family where “individuals are seen with their own identities and not a continuation of the family line.” She said, “He loved us so we could become the people we are.”
Rabbi Sacks left us with an abiding legacy of kindness, curiosity, discipline, love of learning, and being a good parent. He influenced and touched many thousands of lives through his writings and wisdom. Of all the things that I’ve read and listened to this weekend, it was his daughter’s words that most profoundly touched me. In the end, it is our children who we most influence and who go out and change the world.
May we all take a lesson from Rabbi Sacks’s teaching. Don’t settle for the world as it is. We must challenge ourselves and our community to be better than we are. It is people not like us that make us grow and that with whom we share collective responsibility for our future.
I am hopeful that we will continue to learn from Rabbi Sacks through his teachings and writings. We are all children of our Creator. May we look upon others as fellow human beings, each blessed in our own unique ways.
May his memory be a blessing.