Remembering Rabbi Jonathan Sacks a year after his death

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was an inspiring orator, teacher and spiritual leader.

Lord Rabbi Sacks with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace (photo credit: Matt Dunham/Reuters)
Lord Rabbi Sacks with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace
(photo credit: Matt Dunham/Reuters)

Last week, former US ambassador to Israel David Friedman attended a ceremony at the Knesset commemorating the first anniversary of the historic Abraham Accords. That evening, he hosted a festive gala launching the Friedman Center for Peace Through Strength at the new Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem. As he stepped on stage to address an international audience of statesmen, dignitaries, celebrities, and others, he paused, placed his yarmulke on his head, and recited the shehecheyanu blessing. Only then did he begin his welcoming message to the audience.

The program included a screening of a trailer for a five-hour documentary on the Abraham Accords that Friedman produced with TBN’s Mati Shoshan. In the film, Friedman presents an overview of the life and legacy of the biblical Abraham, and repeatedly refers to Abraham as the connection Judaism and Islam share. Ultimately, he says, it was three Orthodox Jews who bravely accomplished what the world had decided could never be done – they created a historic geopolitical change in a region that had known only strife.

What became evident at the conclusion of the evening was this: Ambassador Friedman’s knowledge of Torah was at the heart of all of his courageous decisions – and the reason they succeeded. Indeed, Arab representatives interviewed in the film noted the delicate process taking place between men of faith, noting that although they came from different faiths, their understanding and knowledge of their sacred shared ancestry helped bring them to a new level of trust and to a new reality. Ambassador Friedman was appointed to a political position, and while executing his responsibilities, he also shined the light of Torah to the world. 

JUST ONE year ago, the world lost a different kind of ambassador. This Tuesday, the 20th of Heshvan, marks the first yahrzeit of Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory. He was an inspiring orator, teacher and spiritual leader to countless individuals from all walks of life, and his loss was felt by people of every race, religion and nationality. 

In his lifetime, Lord Rabbi Sacks gained recognition in places never before reached by an Orthodox rabbinic leader. In 2009, the House of Lords Appointments Commission recommended Rabbi Sacks for a life peerage, with a seat on the House of Lords, where he was given the title “Baron Sacks, of Aldgate in the City of London.” When he flew with the royal family, he learned Rashi. He addressed every kind of audience, attended international events, and always had Torah wisdom to share. 

 BRITISH CHIEF rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is honored at the 2016 Templeton Prize ceremony. Most of the translation was completed by Sacks, though an esteemed committee finished portions after his passing. (credit: Catholic Church England Wales/Flickr) BRITISH CHIEF rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is honored at the 2016 Templeton Prize ceremony. Most of the translation was completed by Sacks, though an esteemed committee finished portions after his passing. (credit: Catholic Church England Wales/Flickr)

Rabbi Sacks drew international admiration from a place of true and deep Torah knowledge. His power came from being acutely aware of who he was, of acknowledging God as his Creator, whose plan for the world includes Jews learning His wisdom through Torah and spreading that wisdom – that light – unto the nations. 

The respect Rabbi Sacks garnered elevated him to the role of “Ambassador to Humanity.” He served as a reminder to the world that morality is good, that rules and standards make us happier and better, and that the Torah provides guidelines for morality. He shared those lessons with the world and never made Jewish wisdom about religious people – or even necessarily about Jews. He bravely and consistently heralded that wisdom to all who would listen, and he did it with conviction and pride. 

Every single one of us has the potential to be an “ambassador to humanity.” At the 2017 “Greatness of Being Jewish” Olami Summit in England, Rav Sacks said, “If you are a Jew (any Jew), you have greatness thrust upon you. How so? Because we are the heirs of the descendants of Abraham… a man who wore no crown, ruled no empire, performed no miracles and commanded no armies, but changed the entire world by his faithful willingness to follow the call of God.” 

We have many examples throughout the history of the Jewish people that we can be stronger, better and braver with Torah knowledge behind us. We know from the Torah that the power of its wisdom is what makes the Jewish people special, and the mission to master it and share it with all is uniquely and universally ours.

Friedman inspired us with his unapologetic expression of his faith and Torah knowledge. The world held Rabbi Sacks in such high esteem and respect precisely because he never shrank away from who he was. On the contrary – he used every opportunity to learn Torah, gain more Jewish wisdom, and impart it to others. In remembering Lord Sacks, it was His Royal Highness Prince Charles, who said, “‘Rabbi Sacks’s voice of wisdom and hope will continue to illuminate, inform and inspire our world for generations to come.” 

The singular way for all of us to elevate and honor Sacks’s memory is to take the steps necessary to learn that wisdom that was bequeathed to us, and share it with others at every opportunity, unabashedly and bravely. 

The writer, a rabbi, is CEO of Aish https://about.aish.com/ and a member of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors as a representative of the World Zionist Organization.