A year without Rabbi Sacks

Rabbi Sacks taught us all, every parent, every teacher, every academic, every lay leader, every philanthropist and every child that we held the key to a better tomorrow.

 RABBI LORD Jonathan Sacks (photo credit: PAUL HACKETT/REUTERS)
RABBI LORD Jonathan Sacks
(photo credit: PAUL HACKETT/REUTERS)

I have been asked many times in the last year “What was Rabbi [Lord Jonathan] Sacks’s greatest idea, greatest legacy?” To try to sum up in few words over 35 books, countless articles and lectures and lifetime of novel ideas would be tantamount to sacrilegious. However, there is one idea to which I as an educator keep returning: The idea of covenant. In the final page of his final book Morality he writes:

“My firm belief is that the concept of covenant has the power to transform the world.”

And indeed, it was his apperception of the Jewish message as covenant that did transform the world for so many. It was not just his parasha sheets “Covenant and Conversation” that sat at the Shabbat table in tens of thousands of homes expressing the idea of Torah text and interpretation as an ongoing conversation with heaven. It was not even the melioristic overtures of Judaism as conveyed in his book on post-holocaust thought Covenant and Crisis. His concept of society as based on “covenant” rather than “contract,” so instructive for politicians, world leaders and dignitaries by offering a template on which to build a fairer, kinder, more moral society still was not the sole expression of covenant.

No, it was more than all of this.

Rabbi Sacks taught us all, every parent, every teacher, every academic, every lay leader, every philanthropist and every child that we held the key to a better tomorrow. How did he do this? He demonstrated this through his belief that we share a world not just with each other, but with God. He showed us that we share responsibility for perfecting our existence, through respecting the freedom, integrity and difference of each individual. When I connect through covenant with the other – be it a human or God, my experience of the “we” transcends and elevates my experience of the “I.”

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacksץ (credit: BLAKE EZRA PHOTOGRAPHY)Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacksץ (credit: BLAKE EZRA PHOTOGRAPHY)

As a Jew that means that I become part of the covenantal narrative of my people. Rabbi Sacks taught us that the greatest gift we can give our children is the knowledge that they are “heirs to a story that inspired a hundred generations of our ancestors and eventually transformed the Western world.” This is a gift that he spent his life cultivating and nurturing for the hundreds of thousands who he touched through his ideas and writings.

When I was asked what impact Rabbi Sacks had on me as an educator, the answer was simple. He taught me that education is not a profession, nor a career choice. Education is the entire edificial framework on which not only Judaism, but the world stands, and it symphonizes harmoniously with covenant.

Covenantal living occasions a morally responsible society for whom faith, family, conversation between generations and education act as building blocks. As he notes on numerous occasions: “To defend a country you need an army, but to defend a civilization you need education.”

RABBI SACKS did not just educate, he made us all into educators. He did not just lead; he made us all into leaders. He was not just a man of unbridled faith; he transformed that faith into a moral imperative inspiring others to act.

When I asked him a few years ago if I should pursue a doctorate at that time in my life, he answered: “A doctorate will expand your horizons and challenge you. But do not undertake it at the expense of your teaching.” First and foremost, before his academic accolades, his rabbinic standing, and his plethora of titles, he was an educator. He was someone who taught us all, from the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jew, to the British parliamentarian, to the American journalist, to the secular Israeli the power we have to influence others, to educate, each in our own individual way.

And he educated so that his voice, his message, was heard not just in the ivory tower of abstract philosophy but in the messy complexity of everyday life.

He transformed what was for some, prima facie, an idiosyncratic and archaic religion into a universal calling, concurrently reviving the beauty and relevancy of its particular message. He crafted intensely complex and complicated philosophical ideas into accessibly concise and pertinently relevant articles or books, ensuring that they not just challenge the mind but stir the soul.

He brought Aristotle, Spinoza, Hobbes, Descartes, Foucault, Avraham, Moshe Saadia Gaon, and Rambam together — composing a narrative of ancient wisdom and modern sensibilities, that encouraged us to be better Jews. Better humans.

He had the courage to protest the egregious forms of modern life, to call out where society had faltered, and individuals had become the agents of their own demise hence continuing the legacy of the ancient prophets.

It has been a year since we lost his iconic voice, his guiding moral light, the beacon of hope he gave us among the chaos.

But we have taken comfort in the thousands of ideas he left us, the hundreds of articles and books that stand as his legacy, and the many encounters we had with him that left each and every one of us, his students, enriched and transformed at some level.

His final written words stand as his eternal legacy:

“We will not complete the journey; therefore inspire others to continue what we began.” (Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas)

There is no doubt, that this life-changing idea is something he achieved on an incalculable scale. I, for one, can no longer determine where Rabbi Sacks’s ideas stop and my ideas start. I have imbibed his teaching to such an extent that they are an intrinsic part of who I am.

To this end, my prayer is that I, together with so many others will continue to humbly walk down the path that this great giant strode, endeavoring in some small way to hold his torch for the next generation. Of one thing we can be certain, on his shoulders surely hundreds of thousands stand.

The writer is an international lecturer of Bible and contemporary Jewish thought. She teaches at various branches of the Matan Women’s Institute of Torah Study in Israel.