Rabbi Lord Sacks embraced challenges. He cared more for the honour of Torah than of his own. And his optimism and humour always shone through.
It is almost a year since his passing and like for so many, his loss is still very raw. When Aaron died, says the midrash, the Israelites could not believe such a towering figure was gone and did not accept it until they were shown his grave. Standing by Rabbi Sacks’s final resting place and reading the majestic and moving headstone, the first one you come across at Bushey New Cemetery, brought home to me the finality of his death.
And yet, as a famous Jedi master once said to his sister, “No one’s ever really gone.” Rabbi Sacks’s books adorn our shelves, his words are spoken at our Shabbat tables, and his ideas are conveyed by leaders, both Jewish and not, across the world. And in the age of the internet, we can still watch him as he teaches us on our phones and computer screens.
For me, this is more than a comforting and nostalgic experience, it is a call to action. When I think of my teacher I don’t look back, I look forward. I don’t sigh, I dream. I feel the drive in his voice, “What next?” he is asking. As a leader, he taught me to look beyond the petty spats of the moment and to always keep an eye on the destination. The unprecedented outpouring of communal love and global honour in the weeks and months after he was laid to rest, is testimony to the vision of the man. He reminded us of the grandeur of our history and the privilege of passing on God’s gift to the world, our holy Torah.
That is why we at LSJS, his alma mater and first academic home, have held a regular course about his thought since January, in partnership with the Jewish News. What has made it so special is that it has been taught by some of Rabbi Sacks’s most talented students, all accomplished teachers and thinkers in their own right. Dr Erica Brown, Rabbi Joe Wolfson and Professor Daniel Rynhold from the USA, Rabbi Alex Israel, Tanya White, Dr Sam Lebens, Rabbi Johnny Solomon, Dr Daniel Rose and Rabbi Gideon Sylvester from Israel, and Joanne Greenaway and Rabbi Dr Michael Harris from our own shores. Each has explained and analysed another aspect of Rabbi Sacks’s teachings and their continued significance for Jewish life today.
To mark the first yahrzeit, the anniversary of his passing, LSJS is partnering with the Rabbi Sacks Legacy Trust to host the flagship event of the ‘Communities in Conversation’ initiative, a worldwide day of learning in his memory. On Monday night, 25th October, we will hear from S&P Senior Sephardi Rabbi Joseph Dweck and Rabbi Daniel Epstein of Marble Arch Synagogue, which is hosting the event. Both rabbis are students of Rabbi Sacks, both personally encouraged by him. This event, which you can attend in person or live online, begins the final term of the LSJS course. It continues until 6 December, when I will be in conversation with Gila Sacks, Rabbi Sacks’s youngest daughter, a highly accomplished civil servant who spoke so eloquently at his funeral.
Rabbi Sacks wrote confidently of the future of the Jewish people. We have been here for millennia, and the covenant forged with our Creator continues to stimulate us to live lives of righteousness and justice. He taught of Mordechai’s message to Esther in response to Haman’s plot to wipe out our people two and a half thousand years ago. “If you remain silent, relief and rescue will come to the Jews elsewhere… but who knows whether for just such a time like this you attained royalty?” (Esther 4:14).
We do not need to embrace our Judaism out of a sense of guilt or fear of letting down our ancestors, but as an opportunity to take part in the greatest story of all time, one that has inspired all of humanity. This is our moment, our time in the sun, our chance to share in the Torah’s vision.
In To Heal a Fractured World, Rabbi Sacks wrote, “We are God’s ambassadors on earth. The way we live affects how others see him. God needs us. The idea sounds paradoxical, but it is true. Wittingly or unwittingly, the way we live tells a story. If we live well, becoming a blessing to others, we become witnesses to the transformative power of the divine presence. God lives within the human situation to the extent that we live his will. As a radio converts waves into sound, so a holy life translates God’s word into deed. We become transmitters.”
Rabbi Sacks lived as he taught, with a profound commitment to human dignity, an unfailing belief in the value of the common good, and a deep love for our people. He was unique, but he would remind us that so are we all. “For each of us God may have a task. Discerning that task, hearing God’s call, is what gives life meaning and purpose.”
If we share their vision and live their values, no one is ever really gone.
- All resources produced for the initiative, developed by Dr Daniel Rose, can be downloaded for free: https://RabbiSacks.org/CommunitiesInConversation/