The Jewish people – and the world writ large – have lost a giant. After a beautiful outside and masked slow shira I took part in, I was regrettably informed that Rabbi Sacks had passed away on Shabbos morning. Put frankly, I was devastated. It was the most sad I have felt following the death of someone I didn’t personally know. The Talmud teaches: “the death of the righteous is tantamount to the destruction of the house of God” (Rosh HaShanah 18b). This rings particularly true here. Rabbi Sacks was a walking embodiment of a house of God. He lived out the Divine mandate Jews have to be a light unto the nations. He accentuated the importance of morality in contemporary society, and was a Jewish voice and advocate on the international stage. But his greatness wasn’t only that he himself represented these things. His greatness was in his ability to convey the message that each individual represents these things, too. That God dwells within each individual; that each person is a walking house of God. That each person was made in God’s image, and thus deserves to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect.
The magnitude of sadness I felt after hearing of Rabbi Sacks’ death is difficult to articulate. His teachings have influenced me enormously. I have read many of his books; he came to speak at my shul; I have been enormously impacted by his explanatory videos. He discussed the role of Judaism in modern times, and articulately took ancient ideas and used its eternal messages to inspire the modern reader. This approach appealed to me, as it did to many others. His sheer intellectualism and unparalleled eloquence drew me in like a magnet.
His books of essays on the weekly Torah portion were gifted to me for my Bar Mitzvah by my aunt, and I have been consistently reading them ever since, constantly enamoured by his erudition, eloquence, and novel insight. He was truly a once in a generation Jewish thinker, and was the epitome of what it means to be a Kiddush Hashem.
Perhaps most devastating of all, though, is that the world needs a Rabbi Sacks now more than ever. The word is polarized, extreme, and volatile. Rabbi Sacks knew this, and spoke of the need to reject the politics of anger and embrace the politics of hope. In his 2017 Ted Talk, he identifies the underlying problem, exacerbated by social media and online echo-chambers: we stand divided because we surround ourselves primarily with people like us. People who think like us. People who vote like us. People whose ideological leanings are the same as ours. In doing so, we become more extreme. He presents a solution, however:
“I think we need to renew those face-to-face encounters with the people not like us. I think we need to do that in order to realize that we can disagree strongly and yet still stay friends. It’s in those face-to-face encounters that we discover that the people not like us are just people, like us.”
He teaches that we must not view opposing voices as enemies. If we do so, we are complicit in engaging in the politics of anger. This was Rabbi Sacks’ ethos. He knew that there is dignity that lies in our differences.
Let us all, Jews and non-Jews alike, perpetuate the legacy of Rabbi Sacks; to reject the politics of anger, embrace the politics of hope, and wield the mantle of collective responsibility.
The memory of HaRav Ya’akov Zvi ben David Arieh z”l, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l, should be for a blessing. May his universal and timeless teachings of acceptance, moderation, and morality continue to inspire us all.