The Jewish community mourned the passing of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain. Passing away during a contentious election and divided country, Rabbi Sacks always had his finger on the pulse of today and tomorrow. He wrote 30 books, his final one recently published was entitled: “Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.”
I’m a big fan of language. Speech is inherently difficult as it’s a poor vehicle for the delivery of the depth and complexity of what’s going on in our inner world of intellect and emotion. I encourage my students to read a lot and improve their vocabulary, because having more words at your disposal allows you to communicate your inner world outwardly. Rabbi Sacks was one of the greatest at doing this. For example, in the age-old debate on the existence of G-d, how can a believer express the transcendent spiritual experience to a pure rationalist?
In his book ‘A Letter in the Scroll’, Rabbi Sacks attempted to:
“Of course it is possible to live a life without God, just as it is possible to live a life without humor, or music, or love; and one can no more prove that God exists than one can prove these other things exist to those who lack a sense of humor, or to whom Schubert is mere noise, or love a figment of the romantic imagination.”
So how did this boy from Lambeth, London grow to become one of the leaders of world Jewry? Rabbi Sacks often pointed to a turning point during his time as a student of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge at the age of 20.
In 1968, Rabbi Sacks visited New York and had a private audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. After answering a bunch of his philosophical questions, the Rebbe turned the tables and asked him questions about Jewish life on campus for students at Cambridge. “What are you doing to get students more involved?” Rabbi Sacks began to make an excuse for why he wasn’t very involved: “In the situation in which I find myself…” The Rebbe stopped him mid-sentence. “Nobody finds themselves in a situation. You put yourself in a situation. And if you put yourself in that situation, you can put yourself in another!” This young British student was being charged by a world leader to make a difference and change the world. That moment changed his life. In the words of Rabbi Sacks: “A good leader creates followers. A great leader creates leaders.”
Rabbi Sacks chose to devote his life to inspiring and educating the Jewish community and the rest of the world. He worried that “the fact that we had been Jewish in the past was no guarantee that our children would stay Jewish in the future.” He understood that part of the reason our diaspora felt detached from our faith was due to the horrific factors of the 20th century. He heeded the Rebbe’s approach that “if the Nazis searched out every Jew in hate, we will search out every Jew in love.” He brought Jewish ethical values to the world, through embodying his love for G-d and the Torah and sharing that with the world: “Non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism.” He asked the tough questions, for “Judaism encourages questions. It doesn’t silence them.”
Rabbi Sacks looked to bridge the ancient and modern, science and religion, and most importantly to build tolerance between those who believed different from each other. Oh, how we need that today. Let’s pick up the torch Rabbi Sacks lit, building bridges with each other as proud, knowledgeable, and inspired Jews.