Jews with Views – Rabbi Sacks Edition 5782
We asked five accomplished Jews from around the world to reflect upon an influential personal memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l.
BY RABBI GIDEON BLACK
Much has been written about Rabbi Sacks’ remarkable skills as an orator. He was the 21st century’s leading spokesman for Judaism – both within the Jewish community and beyond. That his remarkable speaking style should give voice to his own equally powerful writings was a blessing for so many and made him an even rarer treasure. But where I found his voice to be most profound was during prayer.
Simply put, Rabbi Sacks loved davening. When he would daven, he would do so loudly, often belting out phrases from pesukei dezimra with real gusto. His magisterial translation and commentary on the siddur transformed davening for so many of us, not just because of his scholarship, but because he applied his scholarship to an aspect of Jewish life that he truly loved.
Rabbi Sacks loved to sing zemirot on Shabbat and did so with the same enthusiasm with which he would daven. In February 2000, Rabbi Sacks led 2,000 teens in song at a Bnei Akiva National Shabbaton in Wales. To our amazement, he leaped up onto his chair at Friday night dinner, waving his hands in the air and encouraging us all to do the same. He was in his element, even insisting that the police officers in his security detail get up on their chairs to join in the zemirot!
The energy in the room was incredible, all of us enthralled by the fact that the otherwise very dignified Chief Rabbi had seamlessly transitioned into a head madrich role as he electrified the Shabbaton with his ruach and song.
Rabbi Gideon Black is the CEO of New York NCSY. Born in Scotland, he grew up in London, and received his law degree from University College London before moving to New York to study at YU, where he received semicha and an MA in Jewish Philosophy.
BY DR. ERICA BROWN
The first year I lived in London, I didn’t have a driver’s license (or licence, as the Brits spell it). We lived on Victoria Road that curved into Albert Road, the location of Jews’ College, University of London. Because my world was so narrow, the College became my sole focus. I taught, studied and did a Master’s thesis there under Rabbi Sacks’ tutelage, where he served as its principal.
Those with a front seat in Rabbi Sacks’ classes witnessed his extraordinary spiritual and intellectual gifts; the relatively small classrooms could not contain his ideas, passionate pedagogy, and aristocratic bearing.
A friend visiting from America accompanied me to the college one Friday afternoon. I rang the bell; Rabbi Sacks opened the door. My friend, with the enthusiasm of an American not in keeping with a typical British temperament, casually introduced himself and then said, “And what’s your name?” Rabbi Sacks smiled widely and replied: “I’m Jonathan.”
“Hi Jonathan,” he responded as my face turned beet red. Jonathan? It would never dawn on me to call him anything but Rabbi and some years later, Lord. But in 1988, Rabbi Sacks’ teachings had not yet made it across the pond. Soon enough, his name and face would become iconic, associated throughout the world as a steward of our faith and all faith.
The night Rabbi Sacks died, this friend was the first to console me. I was inconsolable. He reminded me of that moment and the flush on my face that told him without words that we were in the presence of greatness.
Dr. Erica Brown, the director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership and an associate professor of curriculum and pedagogy at The George Washington University, is the author of 12 books on leadership, the Bible and spirituality.
BY JONNY LIPCZER
It was Erev Yom Kippur. As ever, I felt thoroughly unprepared and was frantically getting organized for the holiest day of the year.
My phone rang, I answered it, and I listened to the words I had heard several times previously. But today, just hours before Kol Nidrei, it was particularly unexpected.
“This is the Office of the Chief Rabbi. The Chief Rabbi would like to speak with you. Can I put him through?”
“Yes, of course,” I replied.
After a few moments, I heard the familiar tones of Rabbi Sacks’ inimitable voice. He had called simply to thank me for my work on a project we had been working on during the year.
I was stunned. If today was a busy day for me, I could only imagine how demanding it must have been for the Rabbi of Rabbis.
That day, Rabbi Sacks taught me a transformative lesson: Giving thanks is a priority. On the eve of the single most supremely sacred day in our calendar, I was one of a number of people on the receiving end of a “thank you” call from the Chief Rabbi.
Rabbi Sacks once wrote a list of life-changing principles, the first of which was ‘Give Thanks’: “Yes, we have problems, fears, pains; but they can wait until we have finished giving thanks; and once we have given thanks, our problems seem a little smaller and we feel a little stronger… Giving thanks brings happiness even in hard times.”
Underlining the Jewish essence of thankfulness, Rabbi Sacks wrote elsewhere: “Descartes said: I think therefore I am. A Jew says: I thank therefore I am. To stand consciously in the presence of G-d involves an attitude of gratitude.”
Jonny Lipczer is Director of Communications at World Mizrachi. He is a former Shaliach for Bnei Akiva of Toronto, and leads educational Jewish journeys to Poland.
BY TANYA WHITE
My story, I’m sure, is one of thousands; just one example of this great man’s impact. In 2003, Rabbi Sacks suggested I read the writings of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, in which I found a dialectical faith that spoke to me existentially, and which became the subject of my doctoral studies.
In 2011, I again sought his advice while working on my doctorate at a particularly challenging stage of life.
His advice was accurate and astute: a doctorate will expand your horizons and engender personal growth, but shouldn’t come at the expense of your teaching.
While sitting opposite him in a room filled with books, I realized that he not only echoed the knowledge encased on those shelves but embodied the verse in Tehillim 90: “So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.”
He spoke with politicians, royalty and leaders in every field but always found time and devoted his interest to young educators, channeling each and every one of us towards our potential.
Through personal example, he taught us the meaning of humility, reverence and deep unbridled faith, leaving us with the urgent imperative to do something transformative.
May we succeed in spreading the light of his teachings and continue down the path this great giant strode. For on his shoulders there are undoubtedly hundreds of thousands that stand.
Tanya White is an international lecturer, writer and educator currently completing a doctorate in Jewish Philosophy. A collection of her thoughts can be viewed at contemplatingtorah.wordpress.com.
BY DAVID M. WEINBERG
When he retired in 2013 from the post of British Chief Rabbi, people began asking whether Rabbi Sacks was going to make Aliyah. In fact, there were questions raised about the degree of his Zionist commitment, since the great classics of Western literature, philosophy, and science seemed to loom more prominent in his oeuvre than Zionism.
This was unfair. Rabbi Sacks’ religious excitement about the return of sovereignty to the Jewish people in Zion was palpable in many of his written works. Furthermore, it was clear to me why Rabbi Sacks nevertheless decided not to move to Israel. The Haredi-influenced Israeli Rabbinate would brook no understanding of his broad intellectual horizons and liberal weltanschauung.
I remember the day all the doubters were put to rest, when Rabbi Sacks received the Guardian of Zion award from Bar-Ilan University’s Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies, in June 2014. His mesmerizing address, about “three epiphanies” he experienced in Jerusalem, was a Zionist masterpiece!
Rabbi Sacks concluded his remarks thus: “We have had the privilege to be born in a generation that has seen Jerusalem reunited and rebuilt. We have seen the Jewish people come home. Now G-d is calling on us all to be ‘Guardians of Zion.’ We must all stand up for the one home our people have ever known and the one city our people have loved more than any other. We are all shagrirey Medinat Yisrael (ambassadors for the State of Israel) and we must all make Israel’s case in a world that sometimes fails to see the beauty we know is here.”
David M. Weinberg has been a distinguished diplomatic and defense affairs columnist for The Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom newspapers for 25 years.