Prince Charles, former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin were among a series of world leaders who hailed the legacy of the late former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, in an online memorial event on Sunday evening.
Religious leaders including current Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Israel’s former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, also spoke about Rabbi Sacks’ legacy.
The tribute – in which Rabbi Sacks was widely described as a “teacher” by global leaders – was held to coincide with the end of the ‘Shloshim’, the 30-day period of mourning since Rabbi Sacks died last month aged 72 after being diagnosed with cancer.
His wife Lady Elaine Sacks spoke movingly during the pre-recorded service.
The Prince of Wales described Rabbi Sacks as an “irreplaceable loss” and “a trusted guide, an inspired teacher and a true and steadfast friend”.
In a heartfelt message, the future king said: “As we commemorate the life of Rabbi Lord Sacks, I just wanted to add my own personal tribute.
“His sudden and unexpected death is an irreplaceable loss to the Jewish community, to this nation and to the world – but most of all to his family, to whom he was utterly devoted.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with them at this saddest of times.
“Through his writings, sermons and broadcasts, Rabbi Sacks touched the lives of countless people with his unfailing wisdom, with his profound sanity and with a moral conviction which, in a confused and confusing world, was all too rare.”
Prince Charles said: “He and I were exact contemporaries, born in the year of the foundation of the State of Israel and, over many years, I had come to value his counsel immensely.
His sudden and unexpected death is an irreplaceable loss to the Jewish community, to this nation and to the world – but most of all to his family, to whom he was utterly devoted.
“He was a trusted guide, an inspired teacher and a true and steadfast friend. I shall miss him more than words can say.
“With his incomparable store of learning, and with his innate sense of the power of the story, he defined the moral challenges and the choices our society faces, speaking with conviction across the boundaries of the sacred and the secular, across the generations and across all barriers of culture and religion.
“He taught us how to listen to others, and how to learn from them without compromising the convictions of either party; he taught us to value participation in the common life of the nation; and through it all, he taught us the need to respect the integrity and harmony of God’s Creation.
“In 2013, at the event to mark Rabbi Sacks’s retirement as Chief Rabbi after twenty-two distinguished years, I said – deliberately misquoting Isaiah – that he was a “light unto this nation,” and said I hoped he would keep that light burning for many years to come.
“That was only seven years ago. But, in the years that he was given to us, how brightly that light burned, how many lives were brightened, how many dark places were illuminated. He was, truly, Or laGoyim [“A light unto the Nations”].
“In contemplating this tragic and devastating loss, all we can do is to have faith in the divine providence in which Rabbi Sacks himself placed his trust. As the Psalmist says, our times are in his hands. Though Rabbi Sacks’s time with us seemed all too short, his seventy-two years left the world transformed by his presence. In his sermons, his broadcasts and his books, he spoke with urgency – rich with learning, rooted in humility, charged with passion. His was unmistakably a voice in the tradition of the greatest teachers among the Jewish people.
“We mourn his passing, but we thank God that he was given to us for these seventy-two years, and that, in that time, he renewed our vision of a society where all are valued, where all share a moral bond and a divine purpose. We honour his memory by committing ourselves to that vision.
His was unmistakably a voice in the tradition of the greatest teachers among the Jewish people
“When his own revered teacher, Rav Nachum Rabinovitch, passed away earlier this year, Rabbi Sacks paid tribute and said: “Teachers give us more than knowledge. They give us life. Having a great teacher is as close as we get to heaven.”
Those words could rightly be said of Rabbi Sacks. Yehi Zichro Baruch. May his memory be for a blessing.”
Politicians paid tribute to the former Chief Rabbi during the service.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair also described Rabbi Sacks as “a teacher” – and reflected on their friendship.
“We often used to discuss the Bible together,” he said: “What Jonathan did for me was, he gave those things that were stories I was familiar with, he gave them meaning. And he gave them meaning to me in the life that I was leading.”
He added: “[Rabbi Sacks] ended up, in part, giving me a sense of my own religious tradition and an understanding of other religious traditions. But most of all, he gave me a feeling of why it was important to have faith and how faith was central to human progress.”
He added: “I know that the things that he gave me as a teacher, as a true rabbi, they will remain with me until the day I die. And in some small way, I try and then pass on some of those lessons to those who come after me.”
It was a sentiment echoed by former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who said: “Jonathan combined the passion of a great teacher with the compassion of a great humanitarian.”
From Israel, President Rivlin described Rabbi Sacks as: “A light; not just for the Jewish people, but for all peoples.”
He spoke about Rabbi Sacks’ relationship with Israel, saying: “Rabbi Sacks wrote about one of the most difficult threats facing the whole world today. The threat of hatred and violence that pretends to be for the sake of God. As a leading voice for the Jewish people, and for the whole humanity, he knew that Israel must be a Jewish state. Yes, a home for the Jews after 2,000 years in exile. But also it must be a democratic state.”
Jonathan combined the passion of a great teacher with the compassion of a great humanitarian
As part of the pre-recorded memorial service, a series of tributes were made. Dayan Binstock, who was a close friend of Lord Sacks, recited the Hadran prayer to mark the completion of study after people around the world learnt mishnayot in his memory. The memorial prayer was recited by Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld, filmed at Western Marble Arch Synagogue.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis praised his predecessor for the honour he gave to the Jewish people through his writings; for highlighting the importance of faith in a secular world; and for giving us “tikvah tova,” explaining: “He gave us hope and he charged us with a responsibility to give other people hope.”
He added: “Let us therefore remember his legacy, how he has given us so much to stand up and be proud of, how he has brought praise and recognition for faith in our world today.”
Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, Israel’s former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, described Rabbi Sacks as “gentle and modest. That’s something we should learn from him – humility and modesty.”
He described Rabbi Sacks’ speeches as “incredible,” adding: “His hand movements, his voice intonation, all the drama that he brought into his speeches; this spoke to the hearts of everyone from Chabad representatives in New York to students and professors in universities all over the world.”
He added: “He was the bridge between the Jewish Nation and the diaspora and all nations of the world.
This was echoed by TED Talks head Chris Anderson, who reflected on Rabbi Sacks’ talk in Vancouver in 2017. He said: “TED rarely invites religious leaders to its main conference… I truly didn’t know what to expect.”
He added: “It was an extraordinarily inspiring talk and at the end of it, the entire room rose to his feet and those words have been heard by more than two million people around the world.”
An emotional message was delivered by his wife, Lady Elaine Sacks. Mother to their three children, she thanked viewers watching the service for their supportive messages.
“We have been quite overwhelmed,” she said.
“Messages have come from across the spectrum of Jewish belief from other religions and from around the world.”
Lady Sacks, who met her husband as student at Cambridge University, said: “I want to walk up the stairs to his study and see him sitting there writing away.
“‘Listen,’ I will say. ‘Look what is happening. Look how many people have learnt from you, revere you, love you. They are writing such moving things about you. Look what you have achieved.’
“He will look up at me deeply and nod and say: ‘There is still so much to do,’ and he will get straight back to work.”
Friends of Rabbi Sacks’ also paid tribute to the academic and author.
Lord Jacob Rothschild, who worked on the National Library of Israel project with Rabbi Sacks, said he would “inspire people of all faith, and that was as a result of his deep sense of spirituality and humanity.”
Lord Robert Winston described him as “our teacher,” adding that he was a “cherished friend, with a wonderful sense of humour, who listened to people”. He spoke about his love of music.
Yeshiva University President Rabbi Dr Ari Berman spoke about Rabbi Sacks’ visits on campus, saying: “He was a Jewish leader and thinker of historic proportions, but he was also my teacher and was deeply influential in my religious development and especially in my thinking about Yeshiva University’s mission and purpose.”
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