What I Learned From My Father
BY GILA SACKS
In 2016, Rabbi Sacks won the Templeton Prize, an annual award granted to a person, in the estimation of the judges, “whose exemplary achievements advance Sir John Templeton’s philanthropic vision: harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it. At the award ceremony, Rabbi Sacks’ daughter, Gila Sacks, surprised him by giving a moving and personal speech about what she and her siblings had learned from their parents.
I was asked to say a few words about what my father taught us, his children. I thought that would be easy. But it turns out that it is next to impossible to separate what a parent has taught you from the ‘you’ that you are. To know where to start; to find the words. So let me just tell you three things about our dad.
But before I do, it may be a cliché, but it’s the truest one I know. I don’t think he would mind me saying that whatever he has done, he could not have done any of it at all without the strength which he and we get from our amazing Mum.
Ben Zoma famously asks in the Mishnah (Avot 4:1) “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.” And that’s the first thing I want to tell you about my father. He learns and learns and learns from everyone. His excitement about discovering new ideas, meeting somebody interesting and discovering a great book hasn’t lessened with time in any way. The more he knows, the more he wants to learn. He is absolutely committed to learning everything, to seeing all knowledge as important, to taking as seriously a conversation about business as one about ethics or science or art, to taking the search for excellence in any field seriously. When I was younger, no matter what I was studying at school or university, no matter what the essay topic, if I mentioned it to my dad, he would immediately walk over to the bookcase and pick out the exact book I needed. He learns from everyone. And we learned this from him.
Ben Zoma continues, “Who is rich? One who is happy with what he has.” When I thought about my father and what he has taught me, I don’t think I expected happiness to be what came to mind. I’m not sure his happiness is what most immediately stands out about him or what many people see.
And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that he has, in fact, taught me some crucial things about how to be happy. He taught me that happiness is as much something we choose as something we find. That it can be hard work, but it can be worked at. And I learned from the happiness he finds in the world, even when the world is a difficult place to be. His joy at a beautiful view, a great walk, a moving piece of music. His undiminishing joy in spending simple happy times with my mum, and the happiness he gets from each of his grandchildren.
To be happy with what one has, teaches Ben Zoma, does not mean settling for what you have – but rather finding happiness where you are, enjoying the fruits of this world each day. And that is the second thing we learned from my father, and perhaps something he also learns from us.
Thirdly, and most importantly of all, we have learned from his faith; not just in G-d, but in the ability and responsibility of each of us to make a difference in some way. Not to accept the world as we find it, but to always believe it can be different. And to believe that there is no reason at all that that difference can’t be something to do with us.
This was not for us some grand calling to go out and change the world.
It was simply a way of looking at the world, to always see in it the potential for good, the potential for change. And to always see ourselves as having the ability to make a difference; that we must never be passive observers.
My father’s faith – in the ability of things to change and of people to change them – is what I am most grateful for.
Because sometimes when it is hard for me to believe, it is enough for me to know that he does.
And because he is the cleverest person I know, he is probably therefore right. And I think his faith is, in this way, empowering for so many people whose lives he has touched – even when they might not always be able to believe that things can change, knowing that he does, helps them to do more to make that change happen.
Ben Zoma concludes the Mishnah with “Who is honored? One who brings honor to others.” By believing in us, in our potential for good and our responsibility for good, my father brings honor to so many. And in the life that he leads and the Torah that he teaches, he brings honor to G-d.
Gila Sacks is a senior civil servant in the UK government, currently Director of Prevention Services in the Department for Health and Social Care.