Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
ztl by a secret admirer
by Esther Shuker
Chodesh Tov ve Chag Sameach!
When Deanna approached me to speak today, I hesitated – as usual – but accepted in the knowledge that I wanted to pay tribute to one of my heroes – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks ztl.
I was brimming over with incredulity and respect at the passing of such a giant and just wanted an excuse to share my feelings with you, my community.
So there I was, 10 days ago, sitting down to write my piece and finding myself in such a dilemma: not only are we still reeling from the pandemic and on the brink of a potential loosening of restrictions, but along came Meron on Lag BaOmer and most recently what looks like war in Israel, all this has thrown my world into disarray.
No wonder the parasha this week is BaMidbar – I feel we’re in a wilderness.
Had he been alive, Rabbi Sacks would have issued words of wisdom and comfort in the form of whatsapp messages, films, podcasts, emails, white board cartoons, TED talks, befitting connections to the parasha, to Shavuot. For me, he had become the go-to destination for answers, solace and calming interpretation of events. Indeed he was the permitted guest at our Shabbat table every week – at least on paper - And he was not here.
You might think I’m exaggerating – after all, much of the above could have been written about Moshe Rabbeinu - but in recent years, I had felt more and more uplifted and fulfilled by Rabbi Sacks’s writings: his use of the English language was sublime; his view of the world and love of humanity were exemplary, his ideas & solutions to the world’s ills were novel and daring, not to mention his humility and modesty. He had struggled with depression, health scares, self-doubt and huge stress, yet look what he had contributed to the world!
What was I to do? Shavuot is a joyous time; our people are receiving the Torah, Hashem has chosen us to be His special ones (as my compatriot José Mourinho would say)… We’ve spent the last 49 days honing ourselves, refining our character traits in order to merit the holy guide to life… how could I possibly be anything but upbeat and elated?
So I decided to honour his memory by sharing some thoughts…
I can’t profess to have read all his books … he wrote his first at age 40 and is reputed to have written one a year until his passing at 72, the same age as the State of Israel.
The one that had the greatest effect on me, however, was the recent one, Morality, which seemed to exactly encapsulate our times. In fact I feel that it was his opus vitae – his life’s work as it came at exactly the right time, precisely describing the state of our world – how the advent of Steve Jobs’s iphones, ipads and ipods, have made us a society where ‘I’ is all that matters and it’s up to us all to change that to a society where it is ‘we’ who matter, if humankind is to survive.
In a society based on ‘I’, we will gravitate towards people who think like us and exclude all others, such that we become more extreme versions of ourselves because the group dynamic we have created enables us to express our views all the more radically, at the same time utterly rejecting any opposing views. We see this happening around us.
This way of creating ‘mini clubs’ of people like me and people not like me seemed so alien to R. Sacks who wrote so positively about his experiences at Cambridge where the beauty of meeting people not like me would be that we talk about our differences, our similarities and we agree to disagree, something which seems impossible now.
Rabbi Sacks’ Morality book so resonated with me because he tackled all aspects of contemporary society that I was struggling with – be it bullying of young people on social media, gangs, intolerance, immorality, mental health issues – and he not only defined them but suggested very clear antidotes to them. I urge everyone to read it!
We are still counting the Omer and I printed off Rabbi Sacks’s beautiful list of uplifting comments for each day. Here’s a sample I’ll share:
You are as great as your ideals. If you truly believe in something beyond yourself, you will achieve beyond yourself.
The more you celebrate the good, the more good you discover that is worthy of celebration.
By being what only we are, we contribute to humanity what only we can give.
In life, ask not ‘what can I gain?’ but ‘what can I give?’ Be a blessing to others and you will find that life has been a blessing to you.
Just to show that with all his intellect, R. Sacks also had a sense of humour, I’ll end with a football story:
He and the newly-designated archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, became good friends through a mutual passion for Arsenal football club. Both were invited to Highbury stadium to watch a midweek match. But, as he recalled, the presence of two men with an assumed hotline to heaven did nothing for Arsenal’s chances that night.
He remembered: “That night Arsenal went down to their worst home defeat in 63 years, losing 6-2 to Manchester United. The next day a national paper carried the and concluded: ‘If the archbishop of Canterbury and the chief rabbi between them cannot bring about a win for Arsenal, does this not finally prove that God does not exist!’
The day after, R. Sacks sent them the following reply: ‘To the contrary, what it proves is that God exists. It’s just that He supports Manchester United.’”
Thank you for listening.