Remarkable Lessons from a Remarkable Life
This past Shabbat, though it sounds sacrilegious for a rabbi to suggest, I had planned not to give a sermon. Yet on Thursday evening I realized that it was not possible to let Shabbat pass without saying a few words about the loss of our Sovereign Lady, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. These are the thoughts I was privileged to share with my community.
I remember when my grandparents passed away that although I had loved them very much and always enjoyed spending time with them, once they were gone, I felt that I had not fully appreciated having them in my life. In recent days, I have had a similar feeling. For most of the country, the Queen was a fixture of our lives since birth and, although I have always valued her, enjoyed reading stories about her and occasionally hearing her speak, I have only begun to appreciate how much she meant to me and the country in the past few days. After nearly a century of life, it is hard to describe Her Majesty’s passing as either tragic or shocking, yet I have been surprised at the deep sadness I have felt, as well as the profound sense of loss.
Shabbat is not a time for mourning, nor are we permitted to deliver a hesped (eulogy), so I limit myself to drawing inspiration from the Queen’s remarkable life, focusing on three particular elements.
The first is what we can call tzeniut – modesty. This is often misunderstood in the modern world, both in secular and religious society, as referring only to the technicalities of dress – whether a sleeve or skirt is too long or too short but that is a mistake. Tzeniut, as a Torah value, is about being understated and refined. It is an increasingly rare mode of conduct where one does not seek attention through one’s action, whether that be in private conversation, at a public event or on social media. While there are of course times when someone must take centre stage, it is not something we pursue, request or revel in. The Queen lived her whole life in the limelight while embodying modesty in how she spoke, held herself and acted.
We learn this trait from the Almighty Himself who is referred to as a “kel mistater”, a hidden God, choosing only to reveal His presence at select times in world history. It is also how we are expected to conduct ourselves – as expressed most succinctly by the prophet Micah (6:8), we are asked to “walk modestly with God”. It is a fundamental Jewish value that is surprisingly difficult in the twenty-first century and the Queen exemplified this value to the highest degree. Despite being touted by some as the most famous person in the world, it was clear that Her Majesty never sought unnecessary attention. She was understated, humble and modest in her every encounter and all the more dignified for it.
She was also a unifying figure, often the glue that held our nation together through fractious times. Through periods of immense change, varied Prime Ministers leading the country in different directions and divisive moments, the Queen remained steady through the storms, always remaining a figure we could rally around. I believe that a key to this was her being “above politics”, never seeking to influence those in power or even share her opinion in public thereby remaining a monarch to all. In recent years there have been numerous divisive issues that have seen heated disagreements among many. Undoubtedly it is important to form an opinion on significant issues and, when necessary, to have strong convictions. Many times however, that opinion does not need to be shared on social media or with everyone we know or meet. Our views can be left at the door before we sit at a Shabbat meal and simply focus on what unites us rather than what divides us. Clearly there is a balance to be struck and there are times when it is important to take a stand but over the last few days I have been struck by how much we all gained from the Queen’s choice to remain publicly neutral.
Perhaps most of all, the Queen was a supreme public servant. She famously declared, at the tender age of 21, her intention to devote her life to the service of the people and she never wavered from that for a moment. Her dedication was not limited to simply continuing year in year out, she also noted that her occupation never had an “end of the day” – every waking moment and beyond was in the service of her people. As Jews, this is an immense lesson – to live with a perpetual sense of duty and responsibility is encapsulated in the opening quote of the Shulchan Aruch, “I have placed the Lord before me constantly” (Psalms 16:8). We can fall into the trap of thinking that our religious responsibilities begin and end in synagogue or during prayer or Torah study, but the reality is that our commitment to Torah ideals is a lifelong and unending mission. The Queen’s devotion to a life of service is, to my mind, one of the most inspiring examples of modern times.
Rosh Hashanah, the yearly coronation of the King of Kings, fast approaches and, as an individual I reflect on so many lessons that we learn from Her Majesty’s remarkable life. As community, our thoughts are with the Royal Family as we share their sense of loss and grief and we pray that God grants King Charles III the strength, wisdom and fortitude to continue his mother’s legacy for many years. God save the King!