Howie Beigelman
Howie Beigelman

Shemos Sans Sacks: Chief Rabbi’s Beyond the Grave Lessons Are Hope for Democracy

It was in reading Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ teachings weaving lessons in legitimate self-government applicable to the 21st Century from passages in Exodus that I first realized I counted myself as a student of his. Sacks has powerful teachings in Genesis as well as the rest of the books of the Torah, but Exodus was something else entirely. Exodus remains Rabbi Lord Sacks, the former British Chief Rabbi who passed away this year, at his best.

The story of Genesis is of family; of Adam and Eve, then Noah, and finally Abraham & Sarah as the founders of much of humankind’s moral basis. Those lessons are almost by definition universal, even as we focus on Abraham’s children who would, like him & Sarah, be the progenitors of Jewish peoplehood. But the Exodus seems wholly tribal and parochial. The Almighty intervenes to defend the Jewish people in Egypt, punishing the Pharaoh and his nation. Then, the Jewish people are rescued from Egyptian slavery. They are pursued by Egyptian cavalry and again, Divine intervention saves them from doom. Finally, the Jewish people are given the Torah, and are instructed to build the mishkan, or Tabernacle, for prayer and sacrifice. What universal lessons could be drawn from this?

Nothing could be more parochial and particularistic than the covenant at Sinai. And yet, Sacks writes “Covenant is born when a free people question the established order and conclude that there is a better way. They seek to create a society that refuses to divide humanity into rulers and ruled, those who command and those who obey. It is a collective moral undertaking on the part of ‘We, the people’, all the people, rich, poor, weak, strong, powerful and powerless alike. It says, in effect: there is no one else to do it for us, and we can achieve together what none of us can do alone. It is built on the idea that we are individually and collectively responsible for our future.”

That could have been written by Jefferson, or spoken by Kennedy.

In his weekly study of the Torah portion (Covenant & Conversation) Sacks extracts universal lessons from a particularistic, minority faith. As a lobbyist, government relations and advocacy professional, it was this I most admired. He could influence me personally, but also make that Jewish lesson not uniquely ours, but everyone’s, equally. Jews were chosen, he taught, but chosen to be an example. In an age of might makes right and denial of rights to non-citizens, showcasing a society that legislated no one, not king, nor priest, nor prophet, was above the law and that we ought to treat strangers well because we ourselves were strangers once in ancient Egypt. He talked less about how we became free and of the benefits of freedom, and more of the responsibility a free nation bears. Less of the push to be free “from” oppression & more the responsibility freedom engenders “to” act for good.

Because his lessons were rooted in Jewish tradition, but were meant to inspire everyone, I quote him time and again in legislative testimony and public policy documents. There is almost no other faith leader I could use in advocacy so consistently.

Beyond testimony, his ideas are inspired in laying out foundations as to how we approach a public affairs issue, a societal crisis, with a Jewish lens. He, with an oh-so-British turn of phrase, characterized something, and in so doing, created space for contradiction and conflict. It was what he would call – and entitle one of his books – the dignity of difference.

And, even further, he spoke to how we partner and ally with other faith groups, other cause focused advocacy organizations. Sacks was a proud Jew and, perhaps because of that, he worked so well with other faith leaders. He did so, as I’ve repeated many times, not “face to face” in dialogue, but “side by side” in partnership and service. We do enough talking at each other and far too little working with one another.

Recently a state representative here in Ohio, Casey Weinstein, gave the opening prayer at the start of a House session. He had never before known about Rabbi Sacks, but found him in his research on a Jewish view of the message he wanted to offer, and he ended with this quote from Rabbi Sacks “Sovereign of the universe, Who created all in love, teach us to love all that is good and beautiful in this world. Teach us to honor the dignity of difference, recognizing that one who is not in our image is none the less in Your image; never forgetting that the people not like us are still people – like us.”

A great honor to offer the opening prayer for our Ohio House session today! I closed with this, from Rabbi Lord…

Posted by Rep. Casey Weinstein on Thursday, February 25, 2021

It was that dignity of difference, and that ability to share the same space but hold different beliefs that made him a trusted study partner for Britain’s royalty, a counselor to both Conservative & Labour prime ministers, a prolific author, and a prominent lecturer. Sacks was able to find the words to bridge ideological chasms, philosophies to stay true to oneself but grant legitimacy to competing – even conflicting – views, and examples to help us look beyond the moment & choose to act with grace and purpose for a better day.

His lessons on the Exodus are a showcase of that thinking.

In a word, he was nuanced. In a world of calcified extremes, he showed us the beauty of the center that is missing in today’s ideological fights and political battles. We are further apart and more distrustful of those we disagree with than any time in recent memory.

This was the first Shemos since his passing. It’s hard to believe that we have just said the traditional “chazak” at the conclusion of the last reading of the Torah from the Book of Exodus. Be strengthened indeed. Because this was the first one since Rabbi Sacks is gone.

Sacks can no longer speak. But we can still hear him.

And, on the heels of an election still shaking our national foundations, if we are going to tackle the public policy challenges of the moment, counteract the threats we face, and leave a legacy of justice for future generations, we had best study his teachings. We had also better follow his example.

About the Author
Howie Beigelman is Executive Director of Ohio Jewish Communities, the statewide government advocacy, public affairs, and community relations voice of Ohio's eight Jewish Federations and their 150 nonprofit agencies. He works at the intersection of nonprofit advocacy, public policy innovation, strategic storytelling, and Jewish communal affairs.
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