On Saturday night, with tears streaming down my face, I rent my clothes. That is what one does when one loses a member of one’s family. It’s also what we do when we lose our closest rabbis. For more than 30 years, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was my beloved teacher, friend and mentor. I miss him desperately. I remember as a child hearing the excitement in Golders Green on the arrival of an outstanding new rabbi. A brilliant graduate of Oxford and Cambridge who had been awarded two ordinations; an incredible orator and an iconoclast who refused to don the slightly archaic rabbinic robes that were then de rigueur in British synagogues.
Time passed, and when I was planning my rabbinic career I went to see him. After listening to my anxieties, he assured me of his support, shared stories with me of his own struggles, offered practical advice and then talked to me about the importance of praying to God. I left the meeting grateful for his time, moved by his willingness to share his own vulnerabilities and uplifted by his deep faith.
Our relationship continued, and some years later, Rabbi Sacks spoke at my semicha (ordination) ceremony and inducted me into my first pulpit. His personal advice to me was, “Treat the community as royalty, and they will respond in kind.” Then he added, “Sometimes, you will need a break from them, so take a holiday!”
His sensitivity was extraordinary. Syma Weinberg was director of his office. When her son Marc contracted cancer in Israel, Rabbi Sacks visited him in the hospital and dedicated a book to him. Shortly before Rosh Hashanah, Marc died, leaving behind a young family. Rabbi Sacks flew out for the funeral. Syma was now a grieving mother and grandmother. She confessed that she might not be able to face going to synagogue for Rosh Hashanah that year. Rabbi Sacks understood immediately. “What makes you think God expects you to be to shul this year?” he responded.
There was palpable excitement around his appointment as chief rabbi. He often spoke of how he was inspired by the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s vision of warm, intelligent outreach to every Jew, but he still surprised us all by spending his first Saturday night as chief rabbi on the streets outside a Golders Green bagel bakery, mingling with Jewish teenagers and students. He always had time for young people and once said that he would most like to be remembered not as a chief rabbi or a scholar, but as a rabbi who handed out sweets to children in synagogue.
His informal interactions with youths were matched by careful strategic planning for the community. In his early books, Rabbi Sacks set the agenda for a global Jewish conversation about the state of the community, assimilation and rejuvenation. But he was also a man of action.
He created a fund for the largest-ever investment in Jewish education for Anglo Jewry, then established an organization called Jewish Continuity to oversee it, placing the exceptionally creative Clive Lawton at its head. All Jewish organizations were invited to bid for grants to expand their educational activities. Excited by the initiative, communities across Britain created proposals for new projects. From Jewish puppet shows for infants to yeshiva studies, there was a rush of educational initiatives.
The arrangement exemplified Rabbi Sacks’s belief in empowering people with which he challenged us, his rabbis: “Is a shul a welcoming hotel where the rabbi is the gracious host? Or can we do better and give the people the bricks to help them to build it themselves?”
WHILE EMPOWERING others, he constantly launched his own new initiatives. One of my favorites were the CDs he recorded to celebrate Israel’s 60th birthday. Each disc interspersed his narration of Jewish history with modern music. It was a brilliant way to celebrate Israel and to reach out to people for whom music and history resonated more than books and sermons. The discs were delivered free of charge to every Jew in the country. It was his first foray into using technology, setting the stage for his enthusiastic embrace of the Internet to teach Torah to global audiences.
For most of the year his door was open to me, but every summer, Rabbi Sacks secluded himself in his office to write. He had a brilliant mind, an amazing memory and he read voraciously. His output was astonishing and we were the beneficiaries.
In addition to books of Jewish philosophy and commentaries on the prayer book, Passover Haggadah and weekly Torah portion, he courageously tackled toxic topics that no one else touched, such as how to stem assimilation, how to stop the rift between Reform and Orthodox Jews, religious violence, the relationship between science and religion, and lastly, the role of morality. We were so privileged that one of the world’s finest minds was dedicated to thinking about these issues and writing about them, with immense sophistication, in a style that was accessible to all.
I adored the books and referred to them in all my classes. When I asked my Hebrew University students what they had learned in our course, one of them replied in heavily accented English, “We learned that there is only one Lord, and that is Lord Sacks!”
His writing caught the attention of prime ministers and presidents. Accolades and prizes poured in, but Rabbi Sacks remained on message. Every day, he traversed the country to visit Jewish communities, delivering meticulously prepared speeches, answering questions and giving encouragement to people of every age.
At his retirement event, Rabbi Sacks was feted by a succession of four British prime ministers, the leaders of Catholic and Protestant churches, and prominent journalists. They spoke of him as a “national treasure,” a personal friend, and a man whose books had profoundly impacted their lives. Perhaps the sweetest tribute came from the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, who noted that while they were born in the same year, Rabbi Sacks was retiring while he had not yet started his job! He then described Rabbi Sacks as “a light to the nation.”
In our last conversation, Rabbi Sacks told me about the commentary on the Chumash, the Five Books of Moses, that he was writing. He had so many original ideas to draw upon, but was driving himself harder and harder to formulate fresh interpretations.“
Gideon,” he said, “I have writer’s block. Please daven [pray] for me.”
Rabbi Sacks had battled cancer twice before, but this time it defeated him, and we are bereft. The Talmud tells us that when the students of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, the redactor of the Mishna, returned from his funeral, they sat down to eat. Questions quickly arose regarding the procedure for reciting Grace after Meals. The bereaved rabbis then realized that without their teacher, they had nowhere to turn for answers.
We, too, have lost our spiritual father, and we are left with so many unanswered questions. But Rabbi Sacks has bequeathed us his books, articles and videos from which we can draw on his deep love of God, Torah, the Jewish people and its land, to perpetuate his memory and continue his path.
The writer served as rabbi of Radlett United Synagogue and is currently the United Synagogue’s Israel rabbi.
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