This week’s parsha begins with Avraham burying and eulogizing Sarah. You may have noticed in your Chumash, that in describing the tears that Avraham shed for his beloved wife, the Torah writes, “v’livkosah, to cry for her” with the letter, chaf, smaller than the rest of the letters. Rav Hirsch explains that this is meant to symbolize that the full extent of his sorrow was kept private. After all, this is the woman with whom he embarked on the most magnificent life-changing journey, the woman with whom he shared the many years of existential loneliness, not knowing if their great legacy would live on, the woman with whom he encountered numerous challenges and overcame them. She was the love of his life, and as the Torah makes clear, his guiding light. How could a eulogy adequately express his sense of loss? And so, the chaf¸ the inner center, the core of the word, be-ch-i, the guttural and most depth-conveying sound, is minimized, because it was not, and could not be conveyed.
The Jewish world, and the world-at-large has lost one of its most brilliant lights; a man of towering intellect, an exquisitely sensitive soul, and a gift for explaining Torah ideas – ideas which do not always sit well with the modern world, and yet he did so in the most compelling of fashions. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was truly one of a kind.
How many Jews in our history have been knighted? A handful. How many Jewish scholars have written books that are read by both lay people and scholars alike because they strike the most perfect balance between scholarship and practical application? Not very many at all. How many Jews in our history, as but one example, have been invited to a forum for Christian leaders in the Vatican and that one Jewish voice manages to steal the show with their powerful defense of family values? That has never happened before.
He was a Talmid Chochom, a true Torah scholar; in the early years of his rabbinic career, he wrote brilliant explanations of some the most complicated in Jewish law in his crystal-clear writing style. His books were read, reread, and read again, by observant and non-observant Jews, by people of all faiths and people of no faith. His viewpoint was central to any religious discussion or debate in the modern era. And, he was a mentch par excellence. V’livkosah with the smallest of chafs; how can we possible convey the sense of loss?
We cannot. And the truth is, this is a challenge with every eulogy, any time we attempt to summarize a person’s life in a few minutes, but it is especially difficult with a man as accomplished as Rabbi Sacks.
Rabbi Sacks would often quote the Mishna in Avos, “Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, it is not incumbent you to finish the task, v’lo ata ben chrim l’hipater mimena, nor are you free from trying.” And so, in that spirit, we will try.
Every few hours, this past week, a new tribute was published and shared on the internet. Most writers described Rabbi Sacks’ greatness. Parenthetically, some writers described their own greatness and used a story of Rabbi Sacks as a cover. And of course, threw in a gratuitous selfie with them and Rabbi Sacks. That is never the purpose of a eulogy. The Gesher Hachaim records a custom, how in some places they stopped eulogizing the dead altogether because people were using the eulogy as an opportunity to grandstand. If a eulogy has the word “I” in it a few too many times, it’s not a eulogy, it’s self-promotion. Either way, reading through all these eulogies and tributes, I was struck by how much there is to say about him but also how untouchable and how unreachable Rabbi Sacks was. He was a giant – in knowledge, output, and impact, and we are like grasshoppers in his shadow.
But I was heartened by a quote I stumbled upon from Rav Dovid Feinstein, a great scholar and Torah leader, who also passed away this past week. He was reflecting of his father, the legendary, Rav Moshe Feinstein, the great Poseik (Halachic decisor) of America, and he said as follows: “The world will gain nothing by knowing how many times my father finished Shas (the Talmud), or was fluent in all of Torah shebe’al peh (all aspects of Torah) like Rabbi Akiva Eiger or the Chasam Sofer (two of the greatest scholars of the past 500 years). When people speak of my father, they speak of his compassion, how he had time for children, for brokenhearted individuals. The bigger a person is, the more chesed he must do, and that’s how we know who the true talmidei chachamim (Torah leaders) are.” (https://mishpacha.com/higher-purpose-on-the-lower-east-side/)
Rabbi Feinstein went on to explain that there is no purpose in talking about his father’s greatness in Torah scholarship, because no one can reach such a level, and so it serves no purpose. But his chesed, his kindness, we can hear stories about Rav Moshe and we can say to ourselves, “I can do that too.”
None of us can think like Rabbi Sacks, none of us could write or speak like Rabbi Sacks, and none of us have the influence of Rabbi Sacks. But I believe there are ways in which we can emulate this great man.
In a talk he gave to Chabad Shluchim in 2011, he described how the Lubavitcher Rebbe changed his life. Not yet-Rabbi Sacks was a student in Cambridge. He had questions about Judaism and travelled to America to seek out the Jewish leaders there and find some answers. Of course, one of his stops was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. After some time, he was given a private audience and he posed his questions to the Rebbe. After he finished his questions, the Rebbe turned to Jonathan Sacks and started asking him questions; what does Jewish life look like in England? Are students able to grow in their faith? And them finally, the question that, in the words of Rabbi Sacks, changed his life, the Rebbe asked him, “What are you doing about it?”
That question caused Rabbi Sacks to spend some time learning Torah in-depth. That question ultimately caused him to reconsider his career. He was choosing between becoming an academic, a barrister, an economist, but with the Rebbe’s encouragement, he left those all behind, and decided to dedicate his life to the Jewish People. (https://www.chabad.org/multimedia/video_cdo/aid/1690783/jewish/A-Story-in-Three-Acts.htm)
Now the story, in Rabbi Sacks’ telling was about the Rebbe’s greatness and his vision. But of course, the story is actually about Rabbi Sacks and his ability to respond to his calling. The Sefas Emes writes that the words, lech lecha¸ go! The first words uttered by G-d to Avraham are actually said to every individual. We all have a voice that we hear from time to time and it encourages us to go; to grow in our Torah knowledge, to deepen our connection to G-d, to become a more giving person. But most of us ignore that voice. Avraham’s greatness was not that he received that message; we all do. His greatness was that he listened.
I am sure the Rebbe encouraged many people to do many things. I imagine not all of them listened. Rabbi Sacks, despite having numerus career options that I am sure he would have excelled at. Instead, he chose to dedicate his life to an inner calling. He did not know at the time that he would assume a position as grand as he ultimately did. I am sure, at the time, it was a sacrifice of the highest order.
I am not suggesting you all become rabbis. It’s not good for me if you flood the market… What we can emulate is the sensitivity to listen to that inner voice. What we can incorporate into our lives is the courage to act upon that voice. That’s greatness within our reach. We all hear that voice from time, it pulls ever so gently on our heart strings. But to follow up on it? To change our lifestyle? To sacrifice? Can we really do that?
Yes. Yes, we can. That is one way we can emulate Rabbi Sacks.
With time, and work, and effort, Jonathan Sacks became Rabbi Sacks, and with time, work, and effort, Rabbi Sacks became Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Now if there was anyone who rubbed shoulders with who’s who of English high society, it was him. If there was anyone who had exposure to all the greatest leaders; statesmen and religious leaders, it was him. But you know what’s remarkable, he never talked about it. Or at least rarely did so.
There is an episode of the Simpson’s – I know, I know, Rabbi Sacks would never quote the Simpson’s. He only utilized high culture, never low culture. I am not Rabbi Sacks… Homer got a job teaching in adult education center, but his classes were an absolute failure. No one paid any attention. Then one day he decided to share some personal information, and everyone was riveted. From then on, all he did was speak about his personal life and his class grew to the biggest one in the center.
As crude as the show may be, there is also a certain genius in Matt Groening’s writings. What he was alluding to is a gimmick that many speakers use – talking about themselves. It’s easy and it usually engages the audience. But it could also be distracting. At times, it could be even dangerous, as students become enwrapped in the life of their teacher. The goal of teaching is to convey information, not to cultivate a personal following. Moshe is our greatest teacher and not coincidently the most humble of men. He did not allow his ego to interfere with the precious message he was teaching.
Rabbi Sacks likely had the most amazing personal stories. I have read numerous books and articles he wrote, listened to lectures, and he rarely, rarely talks about himself. Almost no one knew that this was the third time he fought cancer, because he never spoke about his personal life. After Shabbos, when I heard the news of his passing, I checked Wikipedia to find out if he had children – I had no idea that he did.
We live in an era that is hyper-focused on the self (an idea Rabbi Sacks beautifully confronts in a Ted talk); self-esteem, self-awareness, self-actualization, and self-promotion, or “branding” as it’s called in polite society. Rabbi Sacks, despite the bragging rights which he earned, despite the curiosity which we all had about who he really was, despite the stories which he could have entertained us with – it was never about him. It was never about him; always about the other.
Can we talk about ourselves a little less and be curious instead about the people we speak to? Can we focus a little less on our own pain and a little more on the pain of those around us? Can we in this particular fashion emulate Rabbi Sacks? I believe we can.
Which brings me to the final relevant lesson from his life. One constant theme in all of the tributes was his making himself available to mentor young rabbis. He had insight, a wealth of experience, and he shared it with anyone who asked. And it wasn’t just for rabbis that he took the time. Rabbi Soskil, the Judaic principal at Beth Tfiloh, told us that a class in middle school had a number of philosophical questions. They wrote them down and sent them to the office of Rabbi Sacks. Now you have to keep in mind, Rabbi Sacks had a team of people fielding his communications. He was busy beyond belief. But he took the time to record a video addressing every one of those questions. He lived his life to give, to impart, to share everything he knew and everything he had with others.
We all have our own gifts, our own knowledge, our own experience. Share it. We are not put on this planet to take. We are put here to give. While none of us are Rabbi Sacks, we all have something to give.
At the end of our parsha, we find Yitzchak welcoming his bride, Rivkah into the tent of Sarah. The Torah tells us that then, only then, was he comforted over the loss of his late mother. Was Rivkah a replacement for his mother? Of course not. Could her righteousness compare to a woman who are sages tell us had greater prophecy than her husband, Avraham? Impossible. But in her own way, through her own deeds, she brought the same light that Sarah brought into the world.
We have lost a most brilliant light that cannot be replaced, and for that we mourn. But if we, in our ways, in our life, emulate what is emulatable; by listening and acting upon that inner voice, by focusing more on the other and less on the self, and by sharing every G-d-given gift with those around us, then I hope and pray that we too can bring comfort to ourselves and bring merit to the soul of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. May his memory always be for a blessing.