I remember when Rav Soloveitchik passed away and how devastated our Modern Orthodox community was. The Rav was so singular in his Torah scholarship, his halachic and hashkafic courage, his sharp analytical mind and his leadership. There was nobody like him. In our view, he could “match up” with any other Gadol alive to serve as a great mind who supported such core Modern Orthodox ideas as the value of general culture, religious Zionism, and women learning Gemara, among other ideas.
I remember hearing a eulogy of Rav Soloveitchik, perhaps at a shloshim, reflecting on this despair that our community felt. The person delivering the eulogy pointed out that even in the midst of our despair, Rav Soloveitchik’s death provided an opportunity for our entire community. While Rav Soloveitchik was alive, we were dwarfed by his towering presence. While it was incredible to have such a resource to answer all our communal questions, it also stifled independent thought because nobody could compete once Rav Soloveitchik had opined on a particular issue.
After Rav Soloveitchik passed away, it became the job of his students to apply what he taught in his lifetime to new situations that would arise after his passing. There was no Rav Soloveitchik to whom to turn. It was now up to his students to embody Rav Soloveitchik’s legacy and also to use their independent thought to further his teachings.
I feel the same way about Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. We are hearing so many beautiful stories about and teachings of this great Modern Orthodox leader. He died way too early because he had so much more to share with us and it is especially painful to think about what we have lost. The beauty of his specific brand of Torah is that he shared timeless, inspiring Torah concepts in such a user-friendly fashion for the masses, incorporating his knowledge and understanding of general culture and the world at large. To put this idea in proper perspective, I remember that the Shabbat after Rav Lichtenstein passed away, I shared a drasha with my community that enumerated key ways in which Rav Lichtenstein had shaped my thinking. Some people approached me after davening and were so excited about this Rabbi that they asked me where they could read more Torah ideas from Rav Lichtenstein. I shared with them some articles, but they were too difficult for some of my congregants. The writings of both Rav Lichtenstein and Rav Soloveitchik were often too challenging for many to understand. Not so with Rabbi Sacks. Rabbi Sacks had an incredible ability to communicate ideas that were original, thought-provoking, and inspiring, in a way that made them accessible to the masses.
To me, Rabbi Sacks’ journey was to be a proactive or la’goyim, a light unto the nations, and a living Kiddush Hashem. It can be very challenging to engage others. Rabbi Sacks had an awe inspiring ability to communicate in a way that captured the minds and hearts of people of all walks of life – observant Jews, non-observant Jews and non-Jews – in an authentic Torah voice that was both uncompromising but also welcoming. Rabbi Sacks had the unique ability to apply timeless Torah values to cutting-edge contemporary cultural issues and share them with the broader world. He was someone about whom everyone, young and old, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, Jew and non-Jew, would say “Ashrei aviv she’limdo Torah. Ashrei rabo she’limdo Torah. Oy lahem la’beriyot she’lo limdo Torah. Ploni she’limdo Torah re’u kamah na’im derachav, kamah metukanim maasav.” “Fortunate to his father who taught him Torah. Fortunate is his teacher who taught him Torah, woe to the people who have not studied Torah. So-and-so, who taught him Torah, see how pleasant are his ways, how proper are his deeds.” Rabbi Sacks dwarfed us all in this regard.
But he is gone now. Now, it is time for us to continue his legacy. In an essay on this week’s Parsha, entitled, “The Immortality of Great Jewish Leaders,” Rabbi Sacks himself wrote “Leaders see the destination, begin the journey, and leave behind them those who will continue it. That is enough to endow a life with immortality.”
And so, we must continue his work. We must continue to be the kind of Kiddush Hashem that Rabbi Sacks was. We must continue to be the kind of or la’goyim that he was. We must do so by not retreating into our own communities in an attempt to protect ourselves from the outside world. We must instead confront the outside world as he did, armed with our steadfast emunah and our Torah values. We must share them with the broader world, with our neighbors, with our communities, and with the world at large in a way that is uncompromising in our beliefs and yet welcoming at the same time. We must continue his work, and through his teaching, endow his life with immortality.