June 23, 2024
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The Final Work of Rabbi Sacks, zt”l

In his brilliant weekly Thursday night shiur, Simcha Herzog recently expounded on the notion of hapax legomenon. This refers to a word or term that occurs only once in a document or corpus. Some examples in Bereishit include gofer (6:14), sulam (28:12), avrech (41:43) and more. There are countless more examples in Tanach.

Taking some liberty and applying hapax legomenon to an individual, the late Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was undoubtedly a once-in-a-generation personality.

In his final work, “Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas,” the genius of Rabbi Sacks comes out in every chapter. He goes through every parsha and, at the conclusion of each chapter, shares a life-changing idea that every reader can apply to their lives.

While not meant to be an autobiography, there are many points where the author shares insights from his life. Rabbi Sacks was on a traditional British trajectory of college and entering the professional world. He writes that all that changed when he met the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, who encouraged him to go into Jewish education.

Like his teacher, the late great gaon Rav Nahum Rabinovitch, Rabbi Sacks was not destined for greatness per se. Nevertheless, they both worked on themselves to become the legendary figures they became. Their will and sheer brilliance enabled them to be life-changing figures for the Jewish world.

What makes this book so enjoyable and readable is that Rabbi Sacks was a man whose Judaism was quite real for him. It was his very essence and being. For the reader with a Western mindset, his approach to chumash is equally real.

For example, he opens the chapter on Parshat Vayishlach with the observation that there are Mozarts and there are Beethovens, and one needs to choose whom they want to be. He writes that Jacob was Beethoven, as his life was a series of struggles. Like Beethoven, nothing came easy to him. Furthermore, Jacob, of all the patriarchs, was a man who chose to be chosen.

In Parshat Miketz, he discusses the impact of Jews on economics, noting that Jews have won a disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes for economics. And in fact, after discussing the effect of what Joseph accomplished in Egypt, he concludes that he was the first economist. To which the life-changing idea in this parsha is: What can be healed is not holy. God does not want us to accept poverty and pain, but to cure them.

When writing of the qualities of great Jewish leaders, Rabbi Sacks notes that the great leaders of Israel were the great defenders of Israel, people who saw the good within the not-yet-good. That is why they were listened to when they urged people to change and grow. While he wrote that about Moshe, it could also be said of Rabbi Sacks. He never screamed, was never prone to histrionics. He was a caring teacher par excellence, and that is why his teachings are so insightful and valuable.

Rabbi Sacks brought a unique sensitivity and sophistication to the Jewish world. His loss is already felt. He leaves the world with scores of seforim that will last evermore. And in “Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas” we discover another testament to his greatness.

Ben Rothke lives in New Jersey and works in the information security field. He reviews books on religion, technology and science. @benrothke.

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