Remembering Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
This week, we all grieve the loss of a very great man, scholar, and teacher, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Zeicher Tzadik Livracha.
Many have spoken and will speak about Rabbi Sacks’ great scholarship as well as his inspirational leadership; I was especially moved by the hespeidim recorded at the funeral and by the very special tribute given by Rabbi Sacks’ daughter Gila. As a non-family member, I would like to pick up where she left off, and to talk about Rabbi Sacks — the man — and Rabbi Sacks — the mensch. And I’m going to do it via the medium that he was a master at — storytelling.
Twenty-nine years ago, in 1991, Rabbi Sacks started out as the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and spent his first Yom Kippur at St. Johns Wood Synagogue in Northwest London. At that time, I was a novice, young, aspiring rabbi (with, I have to admit, a lot more hair). That year, I was hired to run the kids’ program at St. Johns Wood Synagogue for the High Holiday, and so I heard Rabbi Sacks give his first Kol Nidre drosho as chief rabbi.
“My friends,” he said, “you’ve all heard of lightbulb jokes. You know what I mean, how many of this kind of person or that kind of person does it take to change a lightbulb. And you have all definitely heard this lightbulb joke — how many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? Come on, you can all recite the answer along with me — one, but the lightbulb has got to want to change!”
Everyone laughed. His message that night was that on Yom Kippur you can change, but you have to want to change. But that very first line of his Kol Nidre sermon was actually a description of Rabbi Sacks himself. He started as a traditional, but not particularly Orthodox, Jewish boy in North London; after witnessing the Six-Day War in 1967 and meeting the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Sacks wanted to change. And he did change.
Throughout his rabbinic career, Rabbi Sacks faced public challenges on many occasions that undermined his ability to navigate the complexities of his job. Any lesser man would have given up and thrown in the towel. But that wasn’t Rabbi Sacks — he was made of stronger stuff. He drew from an inner strength, discovered what changes he needed to make to correct the situation, and he went ahead and made those changes. He rebuilt bridges that had been burnt, and went through the hard slog of making sure that all those changes were done and dusted.
That, my friends, is not because he was a great philosopher, or a great Talmudic scholar, or a great public speaker, or a great writer — all of which he undoubtedly was. No. It was because he knew that when change needed to happen, only he could make it happen — and that kind of human strength, that kind of superlative character, is the product of someone who knows that a therapist can never change a lightbulb if the lightbulb does not want to change itself.
In 2002, Rabbi Sacks wrote a book called The Dignity of Difference. In the book, he wrote that all faiths have truths, and he seemed to imply that each faith community may actually have truths that other faith communities don’t have. My late grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Dunner, who was the presiding rabbi of the Haredi community in London — as well as the rabbi of Gateshead, the yeshiva town in the north of England — publicly decried the implication of his words.
After hearing of their criticism, Rabbi Sacks immediately withdrew the initial version of the book, reedited it, and reissued it — at great expense. The new version did not mislead readers into thinking he was heterodox or fuzzy on the limits of Jewish theology. But that was not all. Rabbi Sacks arranged for all the rabbis of London to attend a series of personal meetings so that he could explain to them what he had meant, and why it had been misunderstood.
I was in my early thirties and a rabbi in London by then; I attended one of those meetings at his home. I remember thinking at the time: Wow! This is amazing! What an incredible person! Rabbi Sacks could have stubbornly and arrogantly sat on his high horse and dismissed any criticism as unworthy of his attention. But he didn’t. And he could have let others defend him or address those who had criticized him. But he didn’t.
Why did Rabbi Sacks hold those meetings? Because he knew that change was needed, and the change needed to come from him. And that was because he knew that when change needed to happen, only he could make it happen.
There was another aspect of Rabbi Sacks that you might not see written about in the obituaries: Rabbi Sacks was an absolute mensch. Here’s how I know:
Soon after I became involved in the creation of the Saatchi Synagogue in London — an experimental community for young postgraduates in their 20s and 30s — I met Rabbi Sacks at a community function. “When are you going to invite me to speak to your community?” he asked me. I was shocked. Our shul was independent and was not a part of the United Synagogue, the organization over which he presided.
“Will you really come?” I replied. “Of course I will,” he answered, “just call my office, and I’ll make sure it happens.” I called his office the next day, and was totally amazed. Can you believe it? They were expecting my call! He had already told them!
We fixed a Shabbat for his shul visit a couple of months later. I agreed with his office that he would speak before mussaf, and that after davening, he would come to our home for lunch. After the basic details of the arrangements were made, the director of his office got on the phone.
“There are three things you need to know,” she said. “The first is, whatever time davening starts, make sure you are at the front entrance of the shul building five minutes earlier, so you can greet the chief rabbi and walk him into shul.” “Sure,” I said.
“Second,” she continued, “when you introduce the chief rabbi to speak make sure that you thank him and Elaine for coming to the shul.” “Of course,” I replied.
“And finally, when he comes to you for lunch, you need to make sure that he has vegetarian food — he is a vegetarian,” she noted. “No problem,” I said, “that’s totally fine.”
A week before his visit, I got a call from the chief rabbi’s office to go over everything, and again the director of his office got on the line — don’t forget the three things, she warned me: meet him at the entrance. Yes, yes. Thank him and Elaine. Yes, I know. Vegetarian food. Of course, we’ve got it covered. Then on Friday — another call. You’ll remember the three things!! Yes – meet him, thank them, vegetarian – consider it done.
Shabbat morning arrived. Shul started at 9:30. I was there at 9:00. At 9:20, I trotted toward the entrance, well in time for 9:25 to meet the chief rabbi. But before I got to the entrance of the shul, there he was, walking toward me.
“But Chief Rabbi Sacks! I was on my way to meet you at the entrance!” I exclaimed.
He smiled. “Pini! It’s fine! Here I am! We’re going to have a great morning!” And we went into the shul.
When the time came for the chief rabbi to speak, I got up to introduce him. “Ladies and gentlemen,” I began, “the Office of the chief rabbi was very insistent that I thank the Chief Rabbi and Elaine for joining us this morning. So you need to know, that had the director of his office not told me to thank him and Elaine, I would not have thanked him and Elaine — and therefore, I’m so grateful that they told me, not once, not twice – but three times, that I need to thank him and Elaine. And that’s why, from the bottom of my heart, Chief Rabbi Sacks and Elaine — thank you so much for gracing us with your presence at the Saatchi Synagogue this morning.”
Everyone laughed, and no one laughed more heartily than the Chief Rabbi himself. I winked at him, and he gave me a thumbs up.
After davening, we all walked back to my house on Abbey Road and sat down to lunch. My wife Sabine had carefully prepared vegetarian food, as we had been instructed, and she served it to Rabbi Sacks.
“Is there no chulent today?” he asked, looking perplexed. Sabine hesitated, “It’s not vegetarian.” He paused, and then said “Sabine, Sabine, how could I come to your house and not eat your chulent?” And so he ate a bowl of non-vegetarian chulent.
Because despite all the pomp and ceremony associated with his role, Rabbi Sacks was a mensch. He didn’t want to project his position onto others, even if those around him insisted that he did. No. He wanted anyone and everyone to feel comfortable around him. And he knew that he needed to make a conscious effort so that he didn’t intimidate, despite his position and towering intellect. What an amazing trait. Rather than reveling in the spotlight of his fame, he wanted to make others feel totally comfortable in his presence.
That brings me to the subject of his drosho that morning at the Saatchi Synagogue. The story begins many years before, with Desert Island Discs, a weekly BBC radio program that was first broadcast in 1942. On each broadcast, a celebrity guest is asked to choose eight pieces of music, a book, and a luxury item that they would take with them if they were to be cast away on a desert island. In between each choice, the celebrities talk about their lives and the reasons for their choices.
Very soon after he was appointed to be the chief rabbi in 1991, Rabbi Sacks was invited to be on Desert Island Discs. One moment that really stuck out during the interview was when Rabbi Sacks told Sue Lawley, the interviewer: “My great ambition in life was to become an accountant.” Of course, the irony was completely lost on the largely gentile audience. But we Jews all knew what he was saying: which Jewish parent wants their son to become a rabbi? They don’t. They want them to become doctors, lawyers, and accountants! But he became a rabbi.
For his musical pieces on Desert Island Discs, Rabbi Sacks chose Mahler, Beethoven, and Brahms. He also chose “Kol Nidre” as sung by Naftali Herstik, and the Lubavitcher classic “Tzomo Lecho Nafshi” — no doubt quite a culture shock for listeners in places like Scunthorpe and Swansea.
But the song that particularly caught my attention was “Od Avinu Chai, Am Yisrael Chai,” a song composed and sung by the great Jewish singer Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. I was lucky enough to be very friendly with Rabbi Carlebach. I called him up in New York and asked him if he had ever heard of a man called Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. “No,” he said. So I told him that Rabbi Sacks was the United Kingdom’s new chief rabbi, and that he had chosen one of his songs for Desert Island Discs to be broadcast to millions of listeners across Britain.
“Next time you come to London,” I told Rabbi Carlebach, “I’ll introduce you to Rabbi Sacks!” thinking that it would be easy to arrange a meeting. After all, I had known Rabbi Sacks since childhood, when our families were neighbors in Golders Green. But little did I know that layer upon layer of bureaucracy and minders made arranging meetings with Chief Rabbi Sacks very difficult. I soon discovered that this was a promise that would be very hard for me to fulfill.
I called people here and there, but no one seemed to be able to help me — or was even vaguely interested in helping me — arrange the meeting. But I was young and full of chutzpah, so I decided to take the law into my own hands. I knew that Rabbi Sacks davened every morning at the 7:30 minyan at St. John’s Wood Synagogue. On the second morning of Rabbi Carlebach’s visit, I picked him up from his hotel and drove him to St. John’s Wood Synagogue — after all, anyone can pray at a synagogue, and then they can talk to anyone there — right?
I must confess that Rabbi Carlebach had no idea this was an ambush; if he would have known, he’d never have agreed to go. But there we were, and after the prayers were over, I strode up to the front of the shul –Rabbi Carlebach traipsing behind me — to the place where Chief Rabbi Sacks was standing.
“Good morning, chief rabbi!” I said loudly. “Oh, hello, Pini,” he replied, looking surprised to see me. I smiled gingerly. “Er, chief rabbi, I’ve brought someone to meet you.” He looked over my shoulder and bunched up his eyebrows as he always did — and then, suddenly, his eyes lit up. “Gosh, it’s Shlomo Carlebach! How amazing to meet you! We sing your songs all the time. I love your music!” He shook Rabbi Carlebach’s hand, who beamed at him in response. They chatted for two or three minutes, and then we left. This was the only time these two inspirational great Jewish heroes ever met.
Seven years later, on that Shabbat morning at Saatchi Synagogue, Rabbi Sacks began his speech by telling of meeting Shlomo Carlebach at morning minyan. And then he added something that I will never forget for the rest of my life. “Pini,” he said, “I never thanked you for what you did, for making sure I met one of my heroes. Boy, did I get it in the neck when I got to my office that day — ‘what a chutzpah, that Dunner boy ambushed you in shul.’ But I told them, ‘nonsense, in fact — why didn’t you arrange the meeting?’”
“Pini, I really must apologize to you. Because I never thanked you for doing what you did. It must have been a bit daunting to do that, but you went with your heart, and you did the right thing. So, here I am today, to say thank you.” Everyone applauded. And I felt like a million dollars.
That was Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. That was a side of him that the obituaries won’t even mention. Not the philosopher or the scholar side. Not the great speaker side or the fantastic writer side. It was the side of Rabbi Sacks that encouraged the next generation of rabbis — and not only rabbis — with his scholarship and his brilliance, as well as with his kind words to help them feel good about themselves and inspire them to be the best that they could be.
I have been thinking about that story these past few days since he passed away, and I have realized something very important. We all should have thanked Rabbi Sacks more than we ever did when we had the chance. Not a “yasher koach” thank you for one of his droshos, but a thank you for his kindness, for being a mensch, and for being a human face, even though he was this elevated celebrated personality.
Truthfully, I know what he would have said. He would responded, “Don’t be silly, that’s just me being me!” — and it would have been absolutely true. In any event, perhaps the biggest thank you we can give him, and all the “thank you”s he ever really wanted, is to read his brilliant books and articles, listen to his thought-provoking podcasts, and watch his inspirational videos.
How lucky we are that he left behind such an astounding collection of his sensible yet wise views of life and Judaism. The biggest “thank you” we could ever give him is to make sure that even though he may have died, his legacy and message will never die. That is up to us.
Before I end, I want to say something personal to the Sacks family. Anyone who had anything to do with Rabbi Sacks knew how much he loved Elaine, his wife. Elaine: in truth, no thanks would or could ever do justice to the incredible support you gave him, and I absolutely know that he truly appreciated it. Josh and Eve, Sina, Gila and Elliot, and all the grandchildren — you were beyond special to him; you were the blood coursing through his veins and the oxygen that gave him life. We are grateful to you all, because without you, we would never have had him. No doubt (and I’m a rabbi, so I know) it took its toll. But we who were on the outside saw the love that he had for you, and how much his loss, far too early, must be so painful for you. May the almighty comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
In the words of the prophet Isaiah (25:8): “Bila hamavet lanetzach” — may the Almighty destroy death forevermore. “Umacha hashem dima me’al kol panim” — and may the Almighty wipe away the tears from every face.
This week, all our faces are wet with tears at the loss of Rabbi Sacks. But may the sadness caused by the passing of Moreinu Harav Yaakov Tzvi ben Dovid Aryeh, Harav Lord Jonathan Sacks, zeicher tzaddik livracha, soon be replaced by the joy of “techiyat hameitim,” the resurrection of the dead — and may we all merit “biat goel tzedek,” the coming of Moshiach, “bimehera beyameinu,” speedily in our days — Amen ve’Amen.
Rabbi Pini Dunner is the senior spiritual leader of the Beverly Hills Synagogue.