Rabbi Sacks's last book: His words – his memorial

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: ‘Serenity in the face of death came from profound tranquility in the face of life’

 British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks speaking at the Jewish Free School in London in 2006.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks speaking at the Jewish Free School in London in 2006.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Browsing through the pages of I Believe: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, elicits a mixture of joy and sadness. While reading his incisive comments on the weekly Torah portion is intellectually and emotionally satisfying, it accentuates the void left by his untimely passing just over two years ago. 

The essays in this collection were written in the Hebrew year 5780 (2019-2020), the final year of Sacks’s life. The editors note that there were several double parshiot (portions) for which he wrote only one essay, and he was unable to complete the cycle for the publication of the volume before his death. Six of the book’s selections are taken from earlier collections.

In the introduction, Sacks recalls a conversation with the archbishop of Canterbury, who told him that his community was embarking on a year-long project of reading the Bible. He asked the rabbi if he would consider doing something similar within the Jewish community. Sacks replied that while Jewish practice already is to read the Bible weekly, the term “reading” is not quite accurate. 

“We never simply read the Bible,” he told the archbishop. “We study it, interpret it, interpret other interpretations, argue, question, debate. The word ‘reading’ does not quite do justice to the way we interact with the Torah.”

“We never simply read the Bible. We study it, interpret it, interpret other interpretations, argue, question, debate. The word ‘reading’ does not quite do justice to the way we interact with the Torah.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

In I Believe, Sacks continues his tradition of interpreting, studying and explaining the biblical narrative in his inimitable fashion. His wide breadth of knowledge enables him to quote from Rashi, Rousseau, Nahmanides, Nietzsche, the Dalai Lama and the Talmud, all in the service of making the biblical text relevant to humanity in the 21st century.

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: 'His output was astonishing and we were the beneficiaries.' (credit: EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT/FLICKR)Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: 'His output was astonishing and we were the beneficiaries.' (credit: EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT/FLICKR)

THROUGHOUT THE more than 300 pages of commentary on the weekly Torah readings, the former British chief rabbi grapples with the narrative, bringing the struggles and issues of the biblical characters into focus for our time. Explaining how the rabbis developed the technique of midrash (expounding), which provided insights into the details of the biblical narrative that are missing from the text, Sacks writes, “Midrash asks not ‘what did the text mean then?’ but rather, ‘what does the text mean to me in the me-here-now?’”

How Sacks made the Torah relevant: His commentary on the lives of Abraham and Sarah

Sacks’s ability to quote from a wide range of sources in making the text relevant for today is epitomized by his commentary on Parashat Hayei Sarah (The Life of Sarah). He asks why the Torah portion, which begins with the death of Sarah, is called the “Life of Sarah.” Sacks suggests that death and how we face it is a commentary on life and how we live it.

He then quotes Rashi’s well-known explanation on the seemingly superfluous sentence, “Sarah’s lifetime was 127 years; the years of Sarah’s life” (Genesis, 23:1). Rashi wrote that the word “years” is repeated and without a number to indicate that the years of her life were equally good. Recalling the many difficult episodes in her life, from her years of infertility to twice being taken into royal harems after Abraham had said that she was his sister rather than his wife, Sacks writes, “How could anyone say that the years of Sarah’s life were equally good?” 

For that matter, he continues, “Abraham had been promised that he would become a great nation, the father of many nations, and that he would inherit the land. None of these promises were fulfilled in his lifetime.” Yet regarding the conclusion of his life, the text reads, “Abraham… died at a good age, old and satisfied.” How was he satisfied, asks Sacks. The answer, he suggests, is that to understand a person’s death, we have to understand his/her life.

SACKS THEN quotes the 19th-century thinker Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote, “He who has a why in life can bear almost any how.” Abraham and Sarah, writes Sacks, were among the supreme examples of what it is to have a “why” in life. Their lives were lived as a response to a divine voice, Sacks explains, that told them to leave their home and family, abandon their security, and “have the faith to believe that by living by the standards of righteousness and justice, they would be taking the first steps to establishing a nation, a land, a faith and a way of life that would be a blessing to humankind.”

Next on Sacks’s list is Erich Auerbach (1892-1957), the German philologist and literature critic, who wrote that biblical literature is “fraught with background” – meaning, he explains, that much of the story is left unstated. “That is why there is such a thing as Midrash,” he writes, “filling in the narrative gaps. 

“Nowhere is this more pointed than in the case of the emotions of the key figures,” he says. We do not know what Abraham and Isaac felt as they walked towards Mount Moriah, he continues, nor do we know what Sarah felt when she entered the harems of Pharaoh and Avimelech.

For that reason, he writes, the two explicit statements in Genesis regarding Abraham – that God blessed him with everything and that he ended his life satisfied – are so important. He adds that when Rashi says that all of Sarah’s years were equally good, he is attributing to her what the biblical text attributes to Abraham – “serenity in the face of death that came from a profound tranquility in the face of life.” 

Abraham knew, continues Sacks, that everything that happened to him in life – even the bad things – were part of the journey on which God had sent him and Sarah, and he had the faith to continue, knowing that God was with him.

The prolific rabbi concludes his commentary on Hayei Sarah by mentioning yet another book, The Choice, written by Edith Eger, who was taken to Auschwitz as a teen in May 1944 from her town in Hungary. On the way to the camps, her mother said, “We don’t know where we are going, we don’t know what is going to happen, but nobody can take away from you what you put in your own mind.” 

Her mother’s last words helped Eger survive, and she later became a well-known psychotherapist. In her book, explains Sacks, she distinguishes between victimization (what happens to a person) and victimhood (how a person responds to what happens to him/her). Everyone is likely to become victimized at some point in their lives, but how we react to that occurrence is up to us. “No one can make you a victim but you,” she wrote.

THE MINDSET of Holocaust survivors such as Victor Frankl and Edith Eger, suggests Sacks, was present in Abraham and Sarah, who were able to withstand the challenges and disappointments that their lives occasionally presented, and ultimately found serenity at the end of their lives. “I believe,” Sacks concludes, “that faith helps us find the ‘why’ that allows us to bear almost any ‘how.’ The serenity of Sarah’s and Abraham’s death was eternal testimony to how they lived.”

Most of the selections in I Believe are between three and four pages, and all close with a one- or two-sentence summary entitled, “I believe,” in which the author expresses his belief, based on his explanation of the Torah reading.

I Believe is brimming with clarity, original ideas, and the sheer excellence of Rabbi Sacks’s graceful and elegant prose. “We do not make memorials or monuments for the righteous,” states the Jerusalem Talmud (Shekalim Ch. 2, gemara on Mishnah 5, Bavli folio 7a). “Their words are their memorials.” This book is, indeed, a most fitting epitaph for Rabbi Sacks.