12 lessons I learned from Rabbi Sacks

":I am saddened, my brother Jonathan, you were so very pleasant to me." (Samuel II, Chapter 1)  Learning life lessons by example. Op-ed.

Rabbi Elchanan Poupko ,

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
REUTERS/Edmond Terakopian/Pool/PA

When I was a post-graduate student at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks came as a visiting professor for the semester, teaching undergraduate students. Despite not being an undergraduate, I signed up. I knew this was an opportunity of once in a lifetime. Having listened to so many of his classes and adoring his teachings, I went to every class of his I could attend. From that semester, and following so many of his lectures, I found so many valuable lessons, speaking volumes of who he was, and giving me goals to aspire to. Here are some of them:

Education is everything- Rabbi Sacks loved children. His saying: "to defend a country, you need an army, to defend a civilization you need schools," resonated in Jewish day schools around the world. Rabbi Sacks was a brilliant intellectual, yet he made sure his works took the form of a family edition Covenant and Conversation for Shabbat dinners. Time and again, Rabbi Sacks spoke about Jewish education as the epicenter of our existence. Day schools, children, and Jewish education meant everything to him. History will record that day school enrollment in the United Kingdom during his tenure as chief rabbi has skyrocketed, something for which he gets a great deal of credit.

Love- Rabbi Sacks' life did not go on without controversy. He faced criticism from multiple directions. Yet those always fell by the wayside—not because Rabbi Sacks fought back or engaged in mudslinging or heavy debate; it was his way of love, kindness, and graciousness always prevailed. "When the Lord accepts a person's ways, He will cause even his enemies to make peace with him." (Proverbs 16). As Menachem Begin put it, "not in merit of power, but the power of merit." No attack on him was important enough for him to hit back at those who criticized him. No insult was a justification for self-defense.

I remember showing Rabbi Sacks' famous video "Why I am a Jew" to a group of Jewish 5th graders who did not study in a Jewish day school. The room was dark and quiet, and Rabbi Sacks' beautiful voice was resonating in the room. Suddenly one of the kids asked most innocently and beautifully: "Is that God speaking?" To carry the message of God, Rabbi Sacks radiated love, compassion, and care for every person; that is how he found his way to so many hearts.

I once came to Rabbi Sacks right before class with a book of his I had meant to give my grandmother for her birthday. I asked him if he can quickly autograph it if it was not a trouble. He asked what her name was and then went on to write her a beautiful and thoughtful note. Thoughts, wisdom, and ideas, can never go too far without the heart that comes with it. Rabbi Sacks embodied Eleanor Rosevelt's saying: "nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care." Even if you never met Rabbi Sacks, you knew he cared.

Dignity- if there is one word that summarizes Rabbi Sacks' life, it is dignity. It was a dignity enshrined in humility and accessibility, but that just added to his dignity. He did not hide or bury himself in an ivory tower, he did not shy away from putting his arm around someone's shoulder, he did not mind being challenged or criticized, yet there was always a majestic dignity radiating from him. After writing his book "The Dignity of Difference", Rabbi Sacks found out that Hindu students made a plaque with quotes from his book and hung it up in their university; it made them feel more dignity. Rabbi Sacks taught us all that the teaching "who is dignified? He who dignifies others."

Non-Jews are proud of proud Jews- the human desire to be accepted often leads Jews to believe we will gain wider approval by hiding aspects of our Judaism in public. No one disproved that belief more than Rabbi Sacks. Everywhere he went, he walked proudly with his large kippah and proud Jewish identity. Rabbi Sacks would often say: "non-Jews are proud of Jews who are proud of their Judaism and ashamed of Jews who are ashamed of their Judaism. If I had to think of the greatest gift Rabbi Sacks gave the Jewish people, it would not be his books, lectures, or teachings—though those are true of great value.

The greatest gift Rabbi Sacks gave our generation is the gift of being proud of being Jewish. He made Jewish school children, college students, professionals, rabbis, laypeople, and even highly assimilated Jews be proud of their Judaism. He inspired Jews in the U.K., U.S., Israel, Brazil, Sweden, Hong Kong, and so many more countries, all so proud to be Jewish.

Pragmatism- During one of his classes, I asked Rabbi Sacks the following question: on the one hand, there are Jewish groups who run to align themselves with other religious groups forming alliances based on shared religious concerns and shared concerns about secular groups that attack religion. On the other hand, one can argue in favor of other Jewish groups who strongly align themselves with secular groups, recognizing the suffering we had experienced at the hand of religious fanatics and religious-based persecution.

Which path should we take? Should Jews try and find allies in other religious communities or the more secular humanistic groups? He looked at me with a smile and said with his posh British accent slowly articulating every word and said: "we need friends, we should make them wherever we can find them." That, to me, was a summary of his lifeworld. He valued friendships and relationships and recognized the Jewish community's need to build strong relationships with the broader community.

Uncompromising support for Israel- despite the temptation and popularity of it, Rabbi Sacks refused to take any position against Israel. He knew that when people seek to denigrate Israel, it is not about Israel—it is about the Jewish people. When others sought to apologize or hide away from support to Israel, he stood proud. There were times he was put on the spot and asked to apologize for Israel; he would never do it.

Sometimes the only way to reach your people is from the outside- some rabbis take to a broader audience to bring a Jewish message to the public. Some use mass media to communicate their message to Jews. Rabbi Sacks mastered the ability to share a universal message on the airwaves that would be very valuable to members of his own community. Whether you were a British nurse, college student, a Hassidic Jew in Golders Green, or a rabbi in the U.S., his message was valuable to you. He did not use mass media as a way to buy his way to the hearts of his fellow Jews, he was speaking directly to them. No matter how universal and humanistic his message, it would always resonate with members of his own community.

Never lose your anchor- despite being world-famous, receiving invites to appear all over the world, Rabbi Sacks never forgot where he came from and whom he felt most responsible for. He always made sure his commitment to his own community was primary.

"Boots on the ground"- When I took Rabbi Sacks' course in Yeshiva University, he would go after class downtown to teach at New York University (NYU). He would go to another community every Shabbat and was constantly on the go. Rabbis, leaders, and intellectuals often get caught up believing that their books, ideas, will bring about change and inspire others; Rabbi Sacks realized there is no substitute for human contact. It was his presence, handshape, and warm smile that would reach the heart of so many. Sure, he knew when it was time to sit down and focus on a book or articles, but his ability to reach a wide audience emanated from his ability to

Being modern and orthodox without being defined as such- when asked, Rabbi Sacks refused to classify himself as "modern orthodox." Rabbi Sacks was strongly affiliated with world Mizrachi, Bnei Akiva, Yeshiva University, and many other prominently modern orthodox institutions; he still refused to narrow himself to that classification. He was the kind of rabbi that would be happy to crack a Yiddish joke, speak at Chabad's annual event, and have a great relationship with the haredi community in England. Seeking to have a universal impact, he saw any narrowing definition not necessitated by his religious commitments as unnecessary.

Navigating humor- too often, rabbis might try to bridge gaps and be accessible using humor—without proper judgment of what that humor might look like. Humor then becomes the end rather than the means. Rabbi Sacks showed rabbis like me that humor is a must—but also a must not. Use humor that is elevating, dignified, and very Jewish.

Delegation of Jewish Law- Rabbi Sacks did not weigh in on most halakhic matters. He stayed out of halakhic controversies or big decisions by differing to the London Beit Din. Even if you are a rabbi, that does not mean you need to weigh in on every halakhic matter. There is a herarchy of halakhic decisors dependent on the level of proficiency required and the range of influence of the halakhic decision, and he deferred to it. Know what you are good at and be willing to delegate the rest to those you trust. Almost every halakhic question comes my way, I call a well-known Posek (decisor) from Brooklyn, discuss it with him, and pass on the answer.

I could not hold myself back from crying multiple times after Rabbi Sacks' passing. Though we were not in regular contact, his presence gave me, and so many others, what to be proud of and look up to. I will miss him dearly and keep on learning for the many resources he masterfully created and left for us.

"How did the mighty fall in the midst of the battle? I am saddened, my brother Jonathan, you were so very pleasant to me. How have the mighty fallen?!" (Samuel II, Chapter 1)"



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