This poem, in memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z’l, blends descriptions of Sarah, Abraham, Rebecca, and Eliezer from Parshat Chayei Sarah, and personal reflection. Source references can be found in the notes below.
The span of your life was 72 years. Rashi says as sharp as you were at 27
Blessed in all things. It was the God of Heaven who took you from your father’s house
Coated your tongue in silver, showered your words in vermilion, assigned you to his offspring
To heal a fractured world. What a task, and just how fractured
In my youth I watched you, that autumnal day in the Royal Albert Hall
You lowered your jar into the well. We begged for water
To know how a Jew could shoot his prime minister dead
You saw it coming, the “warning lights flashing”, the “rhetoric of hate” that made you “hang your head in shame”. You thundered
“The Judaism I love is not a religion that teaches people to hate one another, that excuses violence, that expresses disdain for the rule of law…” What then?
“The Judaism I love is the one which… brings not vengeance into the world but love, compassion and peace…”
And for us, those simple words, a release. Unembellished, unadorned, so obviously true we felt, a path laid out, reverberating the hall’s great oval and through my skull still now
Again and again we returned, to study the magic of your song or encountered it accidentally. How did you compose those fugues, formulate those cadences, force language to carry that sense and gravity? I became wary of your ability to beguile, too smooth, but still I could not put you down
Drink my Lord. I will draw also for your camels until they finish drinking. You continued to pour
Mesmerised at traffic lights on the way to school, an insight delivered on Radio 4
Blew our minds. Blessed be the Lord, who has not withheld his steadfast faithfulness from this man, guided on his errand
In the House of Lords and European Parliament, politicians shifted at your message, delivered with prophetic cannonade and condemnation. The rise of antisemitism, the “cognitive failure”, the “hate that begins with Jews” but which “never ends with Jews”
From the auditorium to the small, I hold our four short conversations in my palm, prodding them to give up their meaning
And Abraham breathed his last contented, and was gathered to his people, and the generations continued in his path
Genesis 23:1 – “The span of Sarah’s life came to one hundred and twenty-seven years”. Rashi says that at the age of one hundred Sarah was like twenty as regards sin. At the age of twenty she was as beautiful as when she was seven.
Genesis 24:1- “Abraham was now old, advanced in years, and the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things.”
Genesis 24:7 – Abraham explains to Eliezer, his servant, that “the God of heaven took me from my father’s house and said ‘I will assign this land to your offspring.’”
To Heal a Fractured World is a book published by Rabbi Sacks in 2005.
On 4 November 1995, Yitzchak Rabin, the Prime Minister of Israel, was assassinated by a Jewish extremist. Rabbi Sacks attended the funeral in Jerusalem. He then returned to London to speak at a memorial service in the Royal Albert Hall, London. The quotes are from the transcript of that address.
Genesis 24:4 – Eliezer prays that the woman destined for Isaac will offer to lower her jar into the well and give him and his camels to drink. Rebecca does just that. See Genesis 24:18-19- “’Drink, my lord,’ she said, and she quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and let him drink. When she had let him drink his fill, she said, ‘I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.’”
Rabbi Sacks frequently presented ‘Thought for the Day’ on BBC Radio 4.
Genesis 24:27 – Eliezer’s blessing to God on finding Rebecca reads: “Blessed be the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not withheld His steadfast faithfulness from my master. For I have been guided on my errand by the LORD, to the house of my master’s kinsmen.”
Rabbi Sacks delivered important speeches on antisemitism, including in the UK’s House of Lords (e.g., on 20 June 2019 and 13 September 2018) and at a conference at the European Parliament on 27 September 2016
Genesis 25:8 – “And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin.”
Genesis 25:11 – “After the death of Abraham, God blessed his son Isaac.”