A Tribute to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z"l - The Global Rabbi
This week was a very sad week for Jewish communities around the globe, hearing the news of the passing of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l, Rav Ya’akov Tzvi ben David Aryeh. Rabbi Sacks is a once-in-a-generation Rabbi, who was able to bridge boundaries and be in many worlds simultaneously and authentically. Rabbi Sacks was a genuine philosopher who could serve as both the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue in the UK and the Commonwealth at the same time. Rabbi Sacks was able to give Derashot in the Marble Arch Shul in London and also speak eloquently and inspirationally at a TED Talk in Vancouver, BC - he could do both and seem at home in either environment.
Rabbi Sacks was deeply entrenched in Jewish culture and also could appreciate the international language of culture, history, music, arts, and theatre. He was able to cut through all streams, nationalities, and religious affiliations. Rabbi Sacks was respected by Christians, Jews, and other faiths. Even within the many divisions of the Jewish community, Rabbi Sacks was revered in all streams of Judaism, which is remarkable in and of itself. Jewish people flocked to hear Rabbi Sacks whether they were Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or unaffiliated. This is especially amazing because Rabbi Sacks was the voice of Orthodox Judaism to the world, and represented the United Synagogue, which is the mainstream Orthodox organization in the UK and the Commonwealth.
I was able to meet Rabbi Sacks up close when he was in Wellington last December as part of the tour group we hosted. I want to share a story from my conversations with Rabbi Sacks last year on the last international trip of his life, to New Zealand. We had the Zechut, the merit, of hosting Rabbi Sacks for a weekend in early December of 2019, where the two main events for the community was Rabbi Sacks giving the Derasha on Shabbat morning and a community meal for Se’uda Shelishit, where Rabbi Sacks shared a derasha about the importance of the siddur.
I sat at the head table next to Rabbi Sacks during the Se’uda Shelishit and we had fascinating conversations with the other tour group participants. One story stuck out in particular. We were discussing Jewish engagement in the UK and Rabbi Sacks shared a story from his Shul in St. John’s Wood in London. They hosted a very prominent Hasidic singer named Shulem Lemmer for their own Se’uda Shelishit for Parashat Vayera. Shulem is very talented and sings a wide range of songs and is a huge draw wherever he goes. Many of the Belz Chassidim came from their neighbourhood communities to participate in the Se’uda Shelishit at the Shul as well, together with the local community. The Rabbis of St. John’s Wood Shul, including Rabbi Sacks, got together and decided that each Rabbi would request a song for Shulem to sing during the meal. Each Rabbi in turn requested a Hassidic song, a song from Tehillim or other Jewish sources.
When it came turn for Rabbi Sacks to choose his song, it was a very unusual request. Rabbi Sacks got up and asked the following question - we know that Avraham and Isaac ascended to Mount Moriah for the Binding of Isaac at the end of Parashat Vayera. The Torah describes their ascent in great detail and the binding itself as well. What the Torah doesn’t mention is what was the conversation between Avraham and Isaac as they were walking towards Mount Moriah. What song would fit that moment, as Avraham takes his son to be bound, and possibly sacrifice, knowing that Avraham is doing Hashem’s will? After a brief pause, to let the question soak in, Rabbi Sacks said that the Midrash does not give us a clue into what Avraham and Isaac talked about on the way to the binding of his son Isaac. However, said Rabbi Sacks, there is a Jewish composer, Claude-Michel Schönberg, who hit the heart of the emotion leading up to the Akeida in one of the songs from his world-famous play describing the French Revolution - Les Miserables. The song is “Bring Him Home”. Rabbi Sacks had printed the song before Shabbat and brought the pages with him to the meal. He then turned to the Hasidic singer and asked him if he was familiar with the song. Shulem said he had sung “Bring Him Home” hundreds of times but gave Rabbi Sacks the courtesy of reading the words from the printed pages. Shulem sang the theatrical song with a lot of emotion. Nobody had ever made the connection between Les Miserables and the Akeida, nor had asked the brilliant question Rabbi Sacks had asked of the unspoken words of the Torah. After the song, Shulem thanked Rabbi Sacks for printing out the words, because he might have forgotten them after being overwhelmed by emotion, envisioning Avraham singing this Tefilla to Hashem - to let him bring his son Isaac home after succeeding in performing the trial of the Akeida. The performance at the Se’uda Shelishit inspired Shulem Lemmens to record the song and put it on Youtube. You can find the link here:
It takes a very special Rabbi to be able to not only ask an original and deep Torah question but also to be able to answer it using knowledge from secular culture and theatre. The ability to bridge between the world of Torah and the secular world, and to inspire a Hasidic singer to elevate a song made for theatre to such a spiritual level is unique and characterizes Rabbi Sacks’ amazing ability to be a universal Rabbinic leader.
The world will miss Rabbi Sacks, a once-in-a-generation spiritual leader. His legacy will remain for many generations to come as an inspirational Rabbinic leader for the entire Jewish people and the world. Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet.