Death and the Humility of Life – A Tribute to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l

Death is the ultimate equalizer. Neither wealth, scholarship, nor position can ward off the finality of death. For me personally, this past week has been extremely difficult. Our dear friend and congregant, Anne Hillelsohn, lost her battle with pancreatic cancer and Sy Siegel, a newer member of the shul, sadly passed away. Alex Trebek, the longtime host of Jeopardy, also succumbed to cancer.
This week our world was shattered upon hearing the news of the passing of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain. Rabbi Sacks’ erudition and sagacity earned him honor and respect, even from the non-Jewish world. Upon hearing of his passing, Prince Charles wrote a most beautiful letter highlighting the impact and influence he had on society at large. He was a true light unto the nations and his leadership in these turbulent times will be sorely missed.
For me personally, the tragedy is far deeper. I listened to a discussion Rabbi Sacks had with Professor Aaron Ciechanover at the Technion on the topic ‘Does God Play Dice.’ The moderator had the unenviable job of introducing the Chief Rabbi. For close to ten minutes he highlighted many of his accomplishments and some of the awards he received. I found the lecture stimulating, and I was deeply humbled after hearing what he accomplished in his relatively short time on earth. I couldn’t help but see the inadequacies of my life in comparison to his.
Rabbi Sacks expressed that he was comfortable with death. He said that as long as God wanted him alive he was happy to play his role. And when a time would come when God wanted his soul returned, then that too would be fine. More importantly, he taught that in death there could still be life. His words and deeds can transcend the physicality of the man. His values, morals and ethics can still resonate in a world that is in dire need of assistance.
Perhaps more importantly, I realize that death need not always be morose and sad. To the terminally ill and downtrodden, it is an escape from the pain of existence. To the truly pious, its life’s ultimate prize, catapulting their soul into the spiritual trajectory of their choice. But for me, it is a constant reminder of what I have yet to accomplish. The contemplation of my mortality allows me to focus on what is important. It reminds me that there is no time or place for animosity and hatred in the fleeting time I have left.
I’ve watched too many film clips of Michael Jordan winning the game with an incredible shot, seconds before the final buzzer. We all have the capacity to be Michael Jordan. We can all take that one leap of faith and change the trajectory of our lives. And in case you didn’t know, one of the tenets of Judaism is that the celebration only really begins after the final buzzer.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Jack Engel
About the Author
Rabbi Jack and his wife, Miriam have reinvigorated Anshei Emuna, a Modern Orthodox Synagogue located in Delray Beach, Florida, in the ten plus years they have been at the Shul, through their experiences gleaned from serving in pulpits in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. They are advocates of a modern Orthodoxy, being open minded, yet adhering to the integrity of halacha. They believe that being an “ohr lagoyim” refers first and foremost to the entirety of our collective Jewish family.
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