The Talmud declares, “The true memorials to the upright are their words.”
Just as the words carved by a stonemason into a slab of stone remain permanent regardless of where the stonemason might subsequently travel, so too, when an upright person makes an impact with their words on the hearts and minds of others, even when that person passes away, their impact remains forever.
How very true this is of my illustrious predecessor, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt’l.
In our prayers, we sing the praises of the Almighty: “Your greatness is not in what You have. We treasure You because of Your deeds.” (Anim Zemirot)
So too, with great people, we praise them primarily not because of their ability or their potential, but because of their achievements.
Today we recall Rabbi Sacks as a great leader for all that he achieved.
At the beginning of Parshat Nitzavim, the Torah presents to us four types of leaders: “Your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers”.
These may be difficult to understand. Three of them – your heads, your elders and your officers – are clearly categories of leader.
But the other, (your tribes), is a category of followers. Rashi suggests that the first two categories should be read as one: Your heads of your tribes. But, if that’s the case, why didn’t the Torah say that?
The Targum Yonatan suggests that they are, indeed, two different categories of leader. “Your heads” refers to those who hold the formal titles of leadership and “your tribes” (shivtaychem) can also describe leaders. The word shevetdoes not only mean a tribe; it also means a staff or a sceptre, which is the instrument of a leader who declares “Acharye” – “after me!”
Therefore, a shevet is a leader who leads by their action. Just as ‘the crown’ refers to the monarch who wears it, and ‘first violin’ refers to the musician who plays it, so too ‘the shevet’ refers to the great leader who holds it.
Rabbi Sacks was an outstanding ‘Rosh’ – he was our titular leader for many years. However, his leadership went well beyond that. He was also our shevet. Through his extraordinary accomplishments, he led us in action. And because of those remarkable achievements, he remains with us.
At the beginning of Parshat Vayelech, the Torah tells us, “Moshe departed and he spoke these words to all of Israel”. The Noam Megadim explains so beautifully: ‘Moshe departed’ means he passed away, but even after his death he continued to speak these words of Torah to all of Israel, as he does to this very day.
And so, too, with Rabbi Sacks. Sadly, a year ago, he departed from this world. But he continues to address us, to direct us, to guide us and, most significantly of all, he continues to inspire us.
He was a master of so many disciplines, but for me, there was one particular message of his which I believe may be the most significant of all.
In Parshat Vayelech, we are presented with the concluding mitzvah of the Torah. Mitzvah number 613 is to write a Sefer Torah: “And now write down this song. Teach it to the Children of Israel, place it in their mouths.”
The Torah is called a song because it is the melody of life. It is the greatest source of happiness, joy and meaning in this world.
However, we would surely have expected the Torah to advise us that when educating the Children of Israel, we must “place it in their minds” or perhaps, “place it in their hearts.” Why are we told to “place it in their mouths”?
Rav Dessler explains: When one feeds an infant, the worst thing to do is to try to force the food down the child’s throat, because then the child will reject it. The best approach is to make the food appealing; to make the experience of eating a fun, exciting and joyful one, so that the child will eagerly open their mouth and digest the food.
That was the way of Rabbi Sacks. He inspired us to learn and to be sustained by Torah. He had that rare ability to use words to conjure and convey ideas to us, as if by magic.
It was a privilege to sit at his feet and digest everything that he taught us. For him, Torah was the shira, the song; the source of immense joy and meaning in life.
He taught that we should take great pride in our Judaism, in an authentic, Torah way of life and in the contribution that Judaism gives to the rest of the world. He emboldened us to extol the importance of religion in an ever-increasing secular age, and the relevance of tradition in an untraditional world.
As we stand together with the Sacks family, with Lady Elaine, their children and grandchildren, we wish them arichut yamim and pray that the memory of this extraordinary man will be for an eternal blessing.
This article was adapted from the hesped given by the Chief Rabbi at the Stone Setting of Rabbi Sacks Z”TL
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