The Jewish world seemed to join together earlier this week to commemorate the first yahrtzeit of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks ob”m. The sheer number of events and articles that filled my various news feeds made it impossible to read and experience them all. Honestly, I felt driven myself to write about my feelings and share them with the world. I even started. But then I stopped.
I stopped because, first and foremost, I am not some great student of Rabbi Sacks. I met him once, I love his writings (obviously) and think he is one of the most important thinkers in Modern Jewish History. He was the spokesperson for Judaism when we needed a spokesperson. He reached a broader section of Jews than, perhaps, anyone has or will for quite some time. In short, he was and is everything everyone has written or said about him this week, and even more.
But, if I’m being very honest, I can’t say his work changed my life. I know people for whom his writing was transformative. Those for whom his weekly parsha companion is required reading. People whose lives fundamentally changed for the better by encountering his thought. I’m just not one of them. For me, his ideas are a part of the worldview I’ve built, to be sure, but not its foundation.
I didn’t write on his yahrtzeit because when I heard about his passing it was a punch in the stomach, but I don’t think it was a sensation unique to me. His death rocked the Jewish world, and I’m sure many felt off balance, having only known of his sickness for a few weeks. I think we collectively felt what it is like to lose a gadol hador, mentor to a generation and role model.
I am writing after his yahrtzeit because in the days after his passing I wanted to do something, however incremental, to commemorate him. So I decided to purchase his last book, Morality, and read it in an effort to appreciate what we had lost. I found a masterpiece. I don’t know, and to be honest don’t really have interest in knowing whether he knew this book would be his last. Whether or not he did, I don’t doubt that in writing it, there was something happening on some higher plane to ensure this would be his lasting message to the world. The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his blurb on the back says, “If the prophets of the Hebrew Bible came back…this is the book they would write for us.” As I proceeded through the book, I felt that statement’s truth with every page.
His call for a return to morality, summarized as a move from an “I” to “We” focus, was not always comfortable for me. The greatness of this book was not that I agreed with every page. We all have resources we can tap when we just need the intellectual fuzzy blanket of supporting what we already believe. Like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, Rabbi Sacks forces us to look at ourselves from multiple angles and face uncomfortable (dare I say “inconvenient”) truths about the world in which we live.
This year, in keeping with Rabbi Sacks’s call to move beyond ourselves, I’ve been trying to encourage others to encounter the ideas in Morality. I think it’s pretty simple: The more people that absorb his ideas, not an easy feat to be sure, the better a world we will have. Not because we’ll be morally perfect automatons, but because we can seize an opportunity to consider our day-to-day interactions through the prism of what it means to live with others. We can be more compassionate and listen to differences, even if we continue to disagree. We can make small changes like smiling at a bus driver when we usually wouldn’t because he might be having a bad day. We can give others the benefit of the doubt, and maybe even take out the garbage without being asked.
I am writing after his yahrtzeit because encountering the ideas in Morality makes me believe that his impact is not only felt in huge speeches and events, however important those may be. His influence is most importantly felt in the incremental changes we can make to improve the lives of those around us and, in so doing, vastly improving our own.
No more appropriate tribute could be offered to Rabbi Sacks than people around the world encountering Morality and sharing with each other. If you’d like to join my humble project, you are, of course, invited, and can find out more here. But I urge everyone to talk to your community leaders, friends, and family about starting a book club or some other project to spend this time thinking about how we can better exist with each other. Trying to cross ideological and geographical barriers would, of course, make such an undertaking even more productive.
Rabbi Sacks ends Morality, his last book published in his lifetime, with words that give me goosebumps each time I read them:
“But we can change. Societies have moved from ‘I’ to ‘We’ in the past. They did so in the nineteenth century. They did so in the twentieth century. They can do so in the future.
“And it begins with us.”