Losing a Leader – Reflecting on the Life of Rabbi Sacks z”l

It was only a few weeks ago that I opened my laptop to check in the results of the American election that had dominated the news cycle for most of the week. However, it was a different headline that caught my attention and would be the most memorable news that night. It was the unexpected news that Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom had passed away.

In the weeks since the shocking news of his passing, many have penned moving eulogies, reflecting on the life of Rabbi Sacks, even as the grief of losing such a towering figure in the Jewish world remains fresh.

I am sure that this grief will linger for some time, especially for those who knew him well. I did not have the privilege of knowing Rabbi Sacks, but he has long been a presence in my life. Listening to his weekly Dvar Torah before Shabbat was always spiritually enlightening, reading his books were intellectually inspiring and his reflections of current events often brought great comfort.

One memory in particular that will stay with me is a video he filmed during the uncertainly and isolation of the spring COVID-19 lockdowns. In it, he offered his insights regarding the pandemic and its links to a particularly difficult Passover which many were forced to celebrate alone, without friends or family. He poignantly made the point that the whole world was joining the Jewish people in eating bread of affliction this year. His empathy and compassion were evident as he spoke in that comforting British accent of his about the shared suffering of all of humanity.

However, Rabbi Sacks did not only offer needed empathy and comfort. He also spoke of hope. Hope that the shared suffering brought on by COVID-19 could have the ability to bring people together. That selflessness and compassion would be the result of surviving the COVID-19 pandemic.

This hope was a constant theme of Rabbi Sacks’ life and teachings. He recognized that we live in uncertain times, in a world sharply divided by politics, religion, and ethnicity.  In all of this, he saw hope.  To him, the culture wars waged on social media and increasingly in the streets were examples of a failure to recognize and connect with people who were different than ourselves and our tendencies to overlook the greater commonality that we all share. He stressed our collective responsibility to combat these tendencies as he advocated the need for principles of morality and not politics or economics to shape our future.

A concern for others rather than ourselves was central to his worldview, founded upon the moral principles which found their origin in Judaism as the Jewish people brought light and blessing to the nations through pioneering moral principles such as monotheism, justice, equality, and the sanctity of life.

His admonitions to heal our fractured world often rang with the anticipation of the messianic age. An age where our swords could be beaten into plowshares, the lion could lie down with the lamb, and the knowledge of G-D would bring justice throughout the earth.

His powerful and unique insights and ability to articulate his views, connecting current events with moral principles, simply yet compellingly, is part of what makes his loss so heartbreaking, especially at a time when our world is becoming increasingly polarized and we need voices like his more than ever.

However, Rabbi Sacks’ own words offer us comfort, even as we continue to grieve his loss.

A few days after his death, I was glad to see an announcement from the Office of Rabbi Sacks, stating that he had prepared his weekly “Covenant & Conversation” teachings on the Torah a year in advance and these would continue to be released.

It was so fitting that the first Parsha after his death was Chayei Sarah, that interestingly named passage that refers to the life of Sarah but begins with her death. For those unfamiliar with the text, it is found in Bereishit (Genesis) 23:1-25:18.

In this first posthumous publication, Rabbi Sacks explained how Sarah’s death motivated Abraham to act to secure God’s promises of land and descendants by purchasing a burial plot for the mother of the Jewish people and then by arraigning his son’s marriage to perpetuate his line.

Rabbi Sacks concluded with these remarkable insights:

“Abraham acquired only a single field and had just one son who would continue the covenant. Yet he did not complain, and he died serene and satisfied. Because he had begun. Because he had left future generations something on which to build. All great change is the work of more than one generation, and none of us will live to see the full fruit of our endeavors. 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.”  -Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l

Reading these words brought tears to my eyes again. Somehow, months before he would pass away, Rabbi Sacks had penned what I feel is the more fitting eulogy of his own life!

Through these words, w are reminded how he envisioned that great messianic age that we long for and how he immortalized his insights through his writings and teachings in which we can find much to build on. May his death, like that of Sarah inspire us to continue to pursue the vision that  motivated his life. May we become a world that recognizes our shared humanity and in doing so, heal those divisive fractures as Rabbi Sacks exhorted us to during the time that he was given.

About the Author
A Native of Upstate New York, Yishai Corey has spent the better part of the last eight years exploring the world. He is currently a Graduate Student at the Hebrew University in the field of Jewish Studies. His previous travels have taken him around the world pursuing Jewish history wherever it can be found, a quest that (not surprisingly) always brings him back to Jerusalem.
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