Ki nach nafshai d’Rav Lichtenstein, when Rav Aharon Lichtenstein passed away in 2015, it felt like a punch in the gut. Tears were flowing for a true Gadol B’Yisrael (a Giant in Israel), whose Torah I consumed, even though I was only a student of his students.
But it was a loss felt mostly by those of us on the “inside”. The rabbis, the teachers. We had a real sense of who we lost. Some people may have heard his name, but many did not know who he was.
Ki nach nafshai d’Rav Sacks, after Rav Jonathan Sacks passed away on Shabbat morning, the news hit me like a ton of bricks swinging out of nowhere. I was in the post-election, news junkie mode, when all of a sudden the earth shook. We knew he was sick, but had no idea it would be this fast. Immediately, the outpouring of grief came out on Facebook and other social media. And I kept scrolling and scrolling in numbness, just to so somehow feel connected to this great man, who I had the privilege of hearing speak numerous times, whose books and Torah I read, and who once said something to me personally privately that was so moving that showed who he was, and which I will treasure and never forget.
It’s not fair to compare Gedolim, but we do so not to make it a competition, but to truly understand who these people are/were. Rav Lichtenstein was in a different league than Rav Sacks. If we could use sports metaphors, Rav Lichtenstein was unquestionably in the Hall of Fame. He was a Gadol in every sense. But for those of us who did not “know Yosef”, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik was in an entirely different league than Rav Lichtenstein, a maybe one in a few centuries kind of figure. The point of comparison, again, is to highlight who these teachers were.
It strikes me that Rav Sacks was in the league of someone like Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. Also a “hall of famer”, but more like a mid-level figure. Again, the point is not to denigrate. To be compared to Rav Hirsch is quite an accomplishment, but his greatness wasn’t in the realm of Lomdus (sharp Talmudic analysis), Talmud and Halachah (Jewish Law), on top of Jewish philosophy, as in the cases of Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Lichtenstein. His greatness was in parshanut (Torah commentary), a teacher of Torah of a superb quality. Rav Sacks is someone known by the educated masses. He was more tangible than Rav Lichtenstein. Both a scholar and a novice could gain great insights from his Torah, humanity and weltanschaung (worldview, hashkafa). You didn’t need to be versed in havayyot d’Abaye v’Rava (the discussions of the Talmudic sages Abaye and Rava) to appreciate his Torah.
And this is really the kind of rabbi that we need in the world. He was an intellectual and emotional leader. He literally helps us pray every day. Imagine what his commentary on the Chumash (Pentateuch), would have been like had God given him the years to produce it. And there is this feeling that he was taken from us so young, at the age of 72. Rav Lichtenstein was 81. Today, we expect our Torah leaders to live into their late 80s and 90s, and we feel robbed of the future Torah they could have produced. There are others. For me personally, my rebbe, Rav Ozer Glickman, was taken far too young. There were figures like Rav Menachem Froman and Rav Shag”ar who also succumbed to cancer. We can’t take any minute for granted. Hashem put us on this earth at a specific time and place to fulfill the destinies he set out for us. Rav Sacks was the right man for the right time in history. How blessed we were to have him.
It was asked who will be our leaders? We just lost Rabbi Norman Lamm, Rav Adin Steinsaltz and Rav Nachum Rabinovitch, among notable others. The answer comes from a line in the famous “Zayde” (“Grandfather” in Yiddish) song of Moshe Yess. He asks “who will be the Zaydes for our children? Who will be their Zaydes, if not we?”
We may live in a “post-Gedolim” era (though I know a few who are already growing into great teachers of Torah). But one of the things I learned from Michael Jordan in the “Last Dance” is that we should strive to play in the “same league” as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. The Jordan series is a mussar (edification) lesson in how to be a Gadol. I don’t know that I can play at the level of Rav Sacks. I certainly can’t play at the levels of Rav Soloveitchik or Rav Lichtenstein or Rav Herschel Shachter (yibadel lechayim, may he long live), but I must try. I heard Rav Lichtenstein was once asked what he would want written on his epitaph and he said “Hishtadel”, which has a double meaning, both he did his best, and a command to others to do their best, continuing to teach and inspire even from beyond the grave. (His family wrote simply “Oved Hashem”, a servant and worshiper of HaShem, also with multiple levels of meaning, and perhaps the highest compliment, as Moshe Rabbenu (Moses, our Rabbi) is called Eved Elokim, servant of God).
I don’t know what will be put on Rav Sacks’ epitaph, but I do know that he was a Rabban Shel Kol Yisrael ve-Ha’olam, a teacher of all of Israel, and really all of humankind. He was “ours”, but his light shone far beyond our parochial borders. The world lost one of its lights today, and it is incumbent upon us to reflect on the man and his teachings, and how we can live up to the responsibility of continuing to teach his Torah and his message to the world.