Address to students of Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi marking the passing of Rabbi Sacks, Sunday 8 November 2020.
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, but some have greatness thrust upon them.” (Twelfth Night)
You might have thought that Rabbi Sacks was born ‘great’, and certainly that he achieved greatness. That he did. But in his own words, or rather paraphrasing Shakespeare’s, he felt that greatness was thrust upon him.
Rabbi Sacks’ childhood was typical of many London Jewish families in the 1950s and 60s. His family were active in the community, he went to non-Jewish primary and secondary schools, and he went straight to university, to study Philosophy in Cambridge. And it was here that his life changed forever.
The Six Day War had a profound effect on Rabbi Sacks’ life. Like many Jews, he was overwhelmed with Jewish pride and a love for Israel. He spent one summer during his university years in America, where he sought inspiration from the greatest leaders of the Jewish world. He highlights two momentous meetings: with Rav Soloveitchik and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. His summarised that summer as only Rabbi Sacks knows how to do, in one beautifully mirrored, pithy aphorism: “The Rebbe challenged me to lead. Rabbi Soloveitchik challenged me to think.”
Indeed, his thought and his leadership have transformed the Jewish world. And when we reflect on his contribution to Jewish communities, his moral clarity, his global leadership, his erudite Torah insights and worldview, and the library of religious and philosophical works that he gave us, I can’t help but think that all this would not have been, were it not for one momentous summer during his university years.
And that is perhaps why, despite being one of, if not the, most sought after Jewish leader in the world, he is someone that I and countless other young British Jews, had a deep and personal connection with. He always made time to speak to and encourage young people, students, and youth movements.
My first memory of Rabbi Sacks was when he visited my shul in Woodford when I was 11 years old. I knew then that he was someone incredibly famous, so I made sure to get a picture with him, which I still have today. But it was as I held higher positions in Bnei Akiva that I had the opportunity to spend quality time with ‘the Chief’, as he was fondly known. From meetings in his home and office, shiurim in the Bnei Akiva Bayit, and even the occasional phonecall, the relationship with Rabbi Sacks was a significant part of being a Mazkir (National Director) of Bnei Akiva UK. It was surreal for a man who was friends with Prince Charles, the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury to make time for you and know your name. And in this, I was not alone.
At times of joy or sadness, he made sure to be there for the youth. I have fond memories of his meaningful words at the memorial service we organised for one of Bnei Akiva’s founders, Arieh Handler, and I am privileged to have danced with him at the annual Yom Ha’atzmaut tefilla. Over 1300 people attend the service each year, after which the adults leave and the Bnei Akiva youth start dancing. Rabbi Sacks always made a point of staying to dance with the youth – and you could see the immense joy on his face as he did so.
With my friends and peers, we all knew that we were in the presence of greatness. All my close friends from my Bnei Akiva days felt Rabbi Sacks was their ‘life rabbi’. He may not have taught us in a classroom, but his character, leadership and Torah was a model for us to follow. We quoted him, read his books, learned his Torah and went to his shiurim.
Yet at the same time, we felt close enough to Rabbi Sacks that he was part of our lighter moments too. I can recall many a friend’s wedding where the best friends’ speech aimed to slip in as many Rabbi Sacks book titles as possible (The Home We Build Together, Radical Then, Radical Now, the Dignity of Difference etc). Impersonating Rabbi Sacks’ grand oratory was commonplace amongst madrichim on camp. As I became particularly well-known for this, I once recorded a tribute to a friend who was leaving a role in Bnei Akiva in Rabbi Sacks’ voice, which I put on YouTube. A few years later, at my wedding, I was amazed to see that Rabbi Sacks recorded a special Mazal tov message. But imagine my surprise when he went on to say that he loved my impression of him, which sounded more like him than he did, and that he offered me the job as his official clone!
I spent many hours in shul with Rabbi Sacks, both at communal events and on Shabbat. During that time, I never saw him lead a tefilla. Except for once, when he came to Birmingham where I was a student, for the shul’s 125th Anniversary in 2008. They asked him if he would like to daven, and he agreed to. He led Pesukei D’Zimra. I am sure that the shul offered him a more ‘keynote’ tefilla, but this was Rabbi Sacks’ preference. And I have never heard a Pesukei D’zimra led, before or after, with as much feeling, vigour, poetry or grandeur than that Shabbat morning in Birmingham. One of my best friends, Aryeh Grossman, was with me for that Shabbat, and he had the unenviable job of following him by leading Shacharit. Every so often, when spending Shabbat together, we have reminded ourselves of the most memorable line from Rabbi Sacks’ davening, uttered with so much fervour and concentration:
הָפַ֣כְתָּ מִסְפְּדִי֮ לְמָח֪וֹל לִ֥י פִּתַּ֥חְתָּ שַׂקִּ֑י וַֽתְּאַזְּרֵ֥נִי שִׂמְחָֽה. לְמַ֤עַן ׀ יְזַמֶּרְךָ֣ כָ֭בוֹד וְלֹ֣א יִדֹּ֑ם ה אֱ-֝לֹהַ֗י לְעוֹלָ֥ם אוֹדֶֽךָּ ׃
You have turned my sorrow into dancing. You have removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may sing to You and not be silent. Lord my God, for ever will I thank You. (Tehillim 30:12-13)
In September 2020, Aryeh interviewed Rabbi Sacks for the Koren Podcast. His last question, and one of the last that Rabbi Sacks ever answered, was ‘How can we find happiness in the year ahead, given that we already know it will almost certainly bring further challenges?’ Rabbi Sacks said that he draws inspiration from Tehillim 30, Mizmor Shir Chanukat HaBayit L’David, in which King David describes the feelings after passing through a period of great danger.
הָפַ֣כְתָּ מִסְפְּדִי֮ לְמָח֪וֹל לִ֥י פִּתַּ֥חְתָּ שַׂקִּ֑י וַֽתְּאַזְּרֵ֥נִי שִׂמְחָֽה
He explained that as a musician, David HaMelech knew how to “transmute negative energy into positives”. He said that life may be hard, but there will always be moments of joy. It is our job to find those moment of joy and treasure them.
We are currently in a period of deep sorrow and mourning. I feel that I have lost my life role model, my greatest connection to greatness, and the guiding light not just for my approach to Torah, but also to politics, society, morality and life.
But in time, we will cherish the memories, stories, lessons and Torah of Rabbi Sacks, and they will guide us through this and future challenges. They will push us to think more and lead more. They will thrust greatness onto us. And they will provide us with moments of joy.
For living in the same generation as Rabbi Sacks, and to have known him, was a privilege, to which I will always say: ה אֱ-֝לֹהַ֗י לְעוֹלָ֥ם אוֹדֶֽךָּ׃