Sunday, August 14, 2022

“Great leaders create great leaders” is an oft-quoted phrase in many of the recent tributes to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, whose first yahrzeit was marked on the 20th of Cheshvan. Many of the illustrious speakers who paid tribute to this giant of Torah and chochma cited Rabbi Sacks’ life-changing meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the early 1980s when the Rebbe convinced Rabbi Sacks to abandon a future in philosophy and instead become a rav b’Yisrael. That prophetic advice led to the meteoric rise of one of the most revered and impactful rabbinical figures to lead worldwide Jewry in the 20/21st centuries.

Marking the yahrzeit, the OU presented an Evening of Learning and Conversation in Memory of Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks on Tuesday evening, October 26. Originally planned as a hybrid event, the torrential rains predicted for the evening caused the cancellation of the in-person program at the Lincoln Square Synagogue but did result in over 1,000 viewers online. The OU’s executive director of the Institute for Public Affairs Nathan Diament served as moderator. Presentations were offered by Dr. Erica Brown, director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, George Washington University; Rabbi Moshe Hauer, executive vice president of the OU; Rabbi Shaul Robinson, senior rabbi, Lincoln Square Synagogue; and Rabbi J.J. Schacter, professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought, Yeshiva University.

Nathan Diament had many occasions to interact with Rabbi Sacks on his visits to Washington, D.C. “Rabbi Sacks would engage with U.S. senators and congressmen, policy makers and global leaders, and then come to shul in Silver Spring where he interacted warmly with young bar mitzvah boys. Rabbi Sacks taught us that a proud Jew is one who possesses an internal world of Torah knowledge and ritual but at the same time can engage in lessons beyond ritual for society’s understanding.”

Rabbi Shaul Robinson, mara d’atra of Lincoln Square Synagogue, remembers Rabbi Sacks as a young rabbi in the 1980s in Golders Green, a suburb of London, where he re-invigorated the synagogue with his energy, hosting adult education classes, retreats, book clubs and many more innovative projects that he viewed as offering limitless potential. “He made every venue thrilling, energized and intellectually dazzling. He made profound ideas graspable and left his audiences feeling more capable. When interviewer Sivan Rahav-Meir asked him about the most frequently asked question he fielded, he replied, “They ask me if I remember them.” For Rabbi Robinson, Rabbi Sacks possessed the gift of “infectious faith,” as seen in his uplifting davening for the amud, exuberant leading of the congregation in spiritual song, and overall joie de vivre.”

Dr. Erica Brown was a student of Rabbi Sacks at Jews College in the UK while she was studying for her master’s from 1988 to 1990. Rav Sacks and Lady Elaine served as the heads of the college. She recalls that Rabbi Sacks “lit up whatever space he was in. His shiurim were works of art and craftsmanship. He was an optimist-in-chief.” She shared that as he was being sworn in as the chief rabbi of the British Empire at St. Johns Woods Synagogue in September of 1991, he shared, “God is not finished with me yet. I will make mistakes and I will learn from them. I will never relax or give up. We must all do the same.”

Rabbi J.J. Schacter was tasked with the impossible attempt to encapsulate what a 40-year glorious relationship with Rabbi Sacks and Elaine taught him. First, he saw what a difference one single person can make in the world. Rabbi Sacks’ accomplishments obligate us to contemplate what difference we can make during our lifetime. Next, Rabbi Sacks was a mevakesh, a seeker, throughout his life. His aspiration was to know everything about everything. We should seek to make ourselves seekers for our betterment and the betterment of those around us. Rabbi Sacks taught us that the outside world really matters. In truth, Rabbi Sacks was equally a chief rabbi for the outside world as well as for the Jewish world. We must emulate him by being spokespersons for Jewish values in the outside world where we need to have a visible impact. As to why Rabbi Sacks did not reveal to the public his battles with two bouts of cancer, his answer was simply, “If God needs me here on earth, I will remain here. If He wants me upstairs, He will take me. ‘B’yadcha afkid ruchi,’ In your hands will I place my spirit.”

Rabbi Moshe Hauer was only privileged with one personal encounter with Rabbi Sacks but feels that he has come to know him well through his 40 volumes. He shared that for him Rabbi Sacks’ works are far-reaching and display dazzling brilliance.Through his works he “peddles optimism” much as he did by wearing bright yellow ties. He viewed Torah study to be life-changing, always offering freshness, new and different angles and transformative thought in his parsha studies. In the tradition of Ben Bag Bag, Rabbi Sacks delved into Torah and emerged with new insights. He taught us to “open our eyes and seek wonders from the Torah.”

During the Q&A segment of the program, Rabbi Sacks’ peerless devotion to family was pointed out as a recurring theme in his writings. For Rabbi Sacks, marriage and family were covenantal relationships, no less sacred than those with the Divine. In terms of his advocacy for Israel and Zionism, Rabbi Sacks was the most articulate voice in the room. Dr. Brown shared that his display of anger was relentless when confronting antisemitism. He emphatically urged, “We cannot be alone in our fight against antisemitism. Don’t ask the victim to fight off hatred. Ask the friend of the victim to go out and protest.” Assuredly, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks made a world of friends during his precious lifetime.

By Pearl Markovitz


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