Last Shabbat, the Jewish world lost one of the greatest thinkers and rabbis of modern times: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Sacks was a source of great inspiration and wisdom to me, along with many thousands of others throughout the world. His teachings have had a profound impact on my understanding of Jewish philosophy, theology, and history. He was Chief Rabbi of Great Britain from 1991 to 2013, and won the esteemed Templeton Prize in 2016, in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” His brilliant writing on the weekly Torah portion, along with his books, which grapple with the most urgent issues of our times, are at once profound and accessible, sharply analytical and inspirational; a mind and a voice of humility and wisdom, which drew from the millennia of Jewish tradition to create meaning and a call to action for all of us.
Rabbi Sacks noted in all of his teachings that Judaism is a tradition which is focused on creating a better world; a tradition which does not allow for passive acceptance of the world as it is, and does not allow us to wait to be saved by some external and transcendent force. He emphasized the responsibility of the individual – the sacred call to action which defines Judaism going back to God’s call to Abraham, the first Jew, to leave his native land and go to “the place that I will show you.” We read that part of the Torah just a couple of weeks ago, and in our Torah portion this week, Chayei Sarah, we see again that from the beginning, Judaism, as Rabbi Sacks wrote, has been defined by “a sustained struggle against the world that is in the name of the world that could be — but is not yet.” Again and again, Rabbi Sacks pointed out the importance of human agency in our tradition. In this week’s parashah, Abraham is promised a land, and descendants as numerous as “the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore” (Genesis 22:17) Rabbi Sacks wrote in one of his commentaries on this parashah: “But these things [the inheritance of land, and the myriad of descendants] will not happen soon, or suddenly, or easily. Nor will they occur without human effort. To the contrary, only the most focused willpower and determination will bring them about. The divine promise is not what it first seemed: a statement that God will act. It is in fact a request, an invitation from God to Abraham and his children that they should act…the divine promise does not mean that we can leave the future to God. That idea has no place in the imaginative world of the first book of the Torah. On the contrary, the covenant is God’s challenge to us, not ours to God…Faith does not mean passivity. It means the courage to act and never to be deterred. The future will happen, but it is we – inspired, empowered, given strength by the promise – who must bring it about.”
One of Rabbi Sacks’ teachings that has most influenced me is that “hope is one of the very greatest Jewish contributions to Western civilization, so much so that I have called Judaism “the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind.” Jewish tradition, according to Sacks, is the birthplace of the idea of hope.
Through his understanding of the sacred obligation our tradition places upon us always to act from hope and possibility, Rabbi Sacks’ voice resonated through the Jewish world and beyond, and was a beacon during a time in which it is easy to feel the pull of overwhelm, resignation, and despair. Even in his death, his brilliant work will continue to inspire us and invite us into active partnership with a world which needs us, and his moral voice will help guide our way forward. Yehi zichro baruch – May the memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks be a blessing.
Interested in learning more from and about Rabbi Sacks? Here are some resources to explore:
A wonderful podcast episode of On Being with Krista Tippet:
http://www.rabbisacks.org/ (Collected writings on the Torah portion, and other writings)
Selected list of Books by Rabbi Sacks: