Writing in tears about a Rabbi for our time

Rabbi Sacks with Rabbi Zarum
Rabbi Sacks with Rabbi Zarum

Writing in tears.

He always spoke words of Torah, on every occasion. He would quote, Ki hem chayenu v’orech yameinu, “For they are our life and the length of our days”. And so I will follow my Rebbe.

We say in the Shema:  Veshinantem levanecha, “And you shall teach them to your children.” Rashi says, ‘These are your students, for we find everywhere that students are called children… and just as students are called children, so the person who is your teacher is called father.’ We have lost our spiritual father. Our beloved father.

Rabbi Sacks, more than any rabbi I know, spoke to our generation. The Torah teaches us repeatedly that when there is a difficult problem to solve, we should go to the priest or judge “who shall be in your days”. Of course they are in our days, who else is there? But the sages taught that we must go to a person who is ‘in your days’, who understands the issues of now, who lives in the present, and not to hark back to long gone leaders. Rabbi Sacks was of our time, he understood the challenges of being a traditional Jew in the modern world and he found a way for us all to live our faith.

I remember once at the end of a meeting, apologising to him if I had been rude when disagreeing on a matter we were discussing, “Don’t apologise!” he roared, “How can we learn if we don’t take criticism?” He just wanted to do his best for Am Yisrael, his beloved People, us. He taught me to love all our fellow rabbis, “Aleinu leshabeyach, it is for us to praise them.” And he was so sad when one would not live up to the task, “How can a person go through the whole Talmud, and yet the Talmud not go through them?” he would say.

To sit with him, was always an honour. And if I was ever frustrated and spoke inappropriately, he would say, gently, “Dignity, Rafi, always speak and act with dignity.” He embodied that, he made the world see that Torah was on a par with any contemporary philosophy or ideology, that our faith had something to say in the court of great ideas and deep truths. He enabled us to hold our heads up high and be proud to be modern Jews.

His energy, his breadth of knowledge, his work ethic, were all legendary. I thank God that we were given a rabbi for our time. I miss him terribly. And when I quote him, which I will continue to do for the rest of my life, I will never say, “Rabbi Sacks said,” I will always say, “Rabbi Sacks says,” for he is truly alive, in the words that he wrote, in the speeches he delivered, in the advice and support he gave, and in our hearts whenever we recall him and share his Torah.

Rabbi Sacks says, “We do not have to redeem the world all together in one go. We do it one day at a time, one person at a time, one act at a time. A single life, said the sages, is like a universe. Save a life and you save a world. Change a life and begin to change the world.” And he did. He changed our lives. Hundreds of thousands, even millions of them.

Rabbi Sacks stands up to speak, there is a hush of anticipation, “Friends, let me share with you a little bit of Torah…” And then, as he spoke, the world would become a little brighter, hope became more real, God came closer, and life had more meaning.

Sending love to his wife Elaine and children Dina, Joshua and Gila, and grandchildren. May they be comforted by God, and from the love the world has for him.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum is Dean of London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS).
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