Diana, Princess of Wales: A Tribute

September 6, 1997
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Following the passing of Diana, Princess of Wales, in August 1997, Rabbi Sacks wrote a tribute to the late princess. The funeral coincided with parshat Shoftim and one of the Seven Weeks of Consolation which follow the Fast of Tisha B’Av.

Today in our haftarah we read the majestic words of Isaiah, Anochi Anochi Hu Menachemchem, “I, even I, am He who comforts you.” And today we need that comfort, because we find ourselves in the midst of a double grief. As citizens of Britain, we are caught up in the grief of a nation – a grief so overwhelming that it has taken everyone by surprise – at the sudden tragic loss of Diana, Princess of Wales. And as Jews we are caught up in the grief of Israel as yet another suicidal terrorist attack has claimed the lives of innocent victims, injuring hundreds and bereaving us as a people.

We, of all people, are no strangers to collective grief. We have mourned often, too often, as a people. But today, in the midst of the Shiva Denechemta, the Seven Weeks of Consolation, we know also what it is to be comforted. We know, contrary to Shakespeare’s words in Julius Caesar, that the good we do lives after us, while the bad is often interred with our bones. We know that yafah sha’ah achat biteshuvah uma’asim tovim ba’olam hazeh mikol chayei Olam Haba, that better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than all the delights of the World to Come, that even a brief life, tragically cut short, is better than no life at all. And we know, in those moving words of Kohelet, Veyashov he’afar al h’-aretz keshehaya veharuach tashuve el ha'Elokim asher netanah, that “the dust returns to the earth as it was, but the spirit returns to the God who gave it”, that this life is not the end and that the human spirit is bound in the bonds of eternal life. There is avelut, mourning, a grief observed. And there is nichum avelim, comforting the mourners, and learning to take solace in the memory of a life that was but is no more.

And so today we engage in nechamah. We search for comfort, knowing Anochi Anochi Hu Menachemchem, that God is there to help us to find it.

The sedra we read today – Shoftim – is the biblical source of mitzvat minuy melech, the command to appoint a king. The Torah sets out the most demanding standards of royal conduct. A king is commanded to write a Sefer Torah for himself and to read it all the days of his life, levilti rum levavo me’echav, “so that he should not consider himself better than his brothers”, uleviltl sur min hamitzvah yamin usemol, “nor turn aside from the commandment to the right or to the left”.

A king was expected to be a role-model for others: his title, his office, his position, made it all the more important for him to set a high example. And yet, as Jewish history unfolded, almost no king met those standards. Saul, the first king, sinned. So did King David, author of the Psalms. So, according to the Mishnah, did King Solomon, the wisest of men. They were criticised by the prophets. And they appear before us in the pages of Tanach in all their fallible humanity.

I find that honest and moving. The Torah is not a book of fairy tale lives. Faced with the choice between myth and reality, the Torah chooses reality. It lets us see us for what we are. It never hides the fact that sometimes we do small or unwise things. But it never hides the fact either that even fallible human beings can reach the heights and do great and noble things. So it was with kings, and so it is today with those who lead public lives. We expect more of them than of anyone else. Yet they are human, all too human. In them we see most clearly the drama of human weakness on the one hand and of high ideals on the other. We identify with them because their lives are so often ours, writ large and with unusual vividness. At their best they can do good on a vast scale and be a source of inspiration to many. And when they slip, we are reminded yet again that adam ein tzaddik ba‘aretz asher ya’aseh tov velo yechetah, that there is no one on earth who does only good and never sins, and that great or small we are fallible, and each of us at times needs forgiveness.

Few people in our lifetime lived more vividly or publicly than Diana, Princess of Wales. At the time of her marriage, people called it a fairy tale wedding, but as Jews we do not believe in fairy tales. We believe in real people, not characters from fiction. The marriage failed. But the Princess of Wales did an unusual thing with that failure. She took her own pain and used it to identify with the pain of others. She took her own loneliness and used it to empathise with the loneliness of others. She searched for attention, and understood that there are others who need attention. She used her own vulnerability to reach out to others who were vulnerable – the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the victims. And as the spotlight of the media fell on her, so it fell on them and brought their plight to the notice of the world.

And in that there was a very Jewish lesson to be learned – because we too became strangers in Egypt, so that we should learn to love the stranger. We too once ate the bread of affliction, to remember those who are still afflicted. And we too knew what it was to wander in the wilderness, in order to remember those who wander without a home. The Torah taught us to use our suffering to become sensitive to the suffering of others; and that is what she did; and it took courage and strength of character to do so.

Her life was a strange mixture of the good and the less good, of public gestures and private sadness, of determination and confusion. It was a jumble of contradictions, and perhaps what each of us saw in her tells us more about who we are than about who she was. But we know that there are two Jewish principles in judging a life. The first is that we do not make idols or icons of human beings. The second is that we give thanks for the good they do, and when it is public good, we give public thanks.

And that is what we do today. For she, more than most, reminded us of the importance of values we speak of daily but sometimes forget to act upon. Harofeh lishvurei lev umechabesh le’atzvotam. She knew that we are called on to heal the broken-hearted and minister to their wounds. Oseh mishpat la’ashukim, noten lechem lare’evim. She reminded us of the need to bring justice to the oppressed and food to the hungry. Somech noflim verofeh cholim. She knew that we must support the fallen and bring healing to those who are sick. And there were times when, bemakom she’atah motze gedulatah sham atah motze anvetanutah, when her greatness lay in her humility, in the quiet acts of kindness, the hospital visits at night, the gestures of compassion far from the blaze of publicity.

Perhaps most of all she was a reminder of our humanity, that strange mixture of the dust of the earth and the breath of God, yetzer hara and yetzer hatov, strength and weakness, noble deeds and occasional errors, and of the choices each of us must make. There were times when she expanded our moral horizons by raising great issues and championing unfashionable causes. And there were times when she taught us the simplest lesson of all, that a smile or a visit, a human gesture of concern, can make a difference to people’s lives because it lets them know that they are not alone. The Hebrew word chayim, life, is always in the plural, to teach us that human life itself is never singular. It is born when I, in my loneliness, reach out to someone else in his or her loneliness, and in that meeting a relationship is formed. That is what Diana, Princess of Wales, did, and in so doing gave new life to many lonely and forsaken people. And so, remembering her life, we, together with so many others today, give thanks for the good she did, the friendship she offered, the hope she gave and the lives she touched.

But I want to add one more thing, to my mind the most remarkable thing that has happened in the past few days. Our first reaction to her death was one of shock. When I was woken up by the BBC at five o’clock on Sunday morning to comment on the news, at first, I simply didn’t believe it. But as the days went by, a mood of public grief began to express itself that took everyone by surprise. I caught a first glimpse of it when I went on Tuesday to St. James’s Palace to sign the condolence book and saw the six-hour queues, the thousands of people who had come to lay a wreath or pay tribute. The policeman who was escorting me - not, I imagine, a man used to showing his emotions - was close to tears. He said, almost choking, “It makes you feel proud to be British.”

Judging by the calls our Office has received for the past week, and the reactions of people phoning in to Jewish radio stations, the Jewish community has felt intensely bereaved. Dozens of people wanted to know if they could light yahrzeit candles. Hundreds of communities wanted to know how to observe today. In synagogues throughout Britain and the Commonwealth, prayers have been said and tributes paid. I cannot recall a reaction like this, not even for Winston Churchill, the man who led Britain in war. The grief for the Princess of Wales has turned out to be more remarkable than even the Princess of Wales herself. And I want to ask why. Because I believe we have just seen the most remarkable demonstration I can recall in my lifetime of a truth that goes to the very heart of what we believe as Jews, especially on these days as we approach Rosh Hashanah.

In his Hilchot Teshuvah, Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, sets out the law that on Rosh Hashanah we blow the shofar. And then, immediately afterwards, he says the following strange and striking thing. Lefichach, therefore, “every person should regard themself as if he or she, and indeed the whole world, were equally balanced between good and evil, and the next act we do will tilt the balance of the world. If we do one wrong act, we tilt the scales towards guilt. If we do one right act, we tilt the scales towards innocence. Our next act will affect the fate of humanity.”

The shofar on Rosh Hashanah is sending us a message, says Maimonides, about the infinite significance of small deeds. And that, I suddenly realised this week, is what the grief for the Princess of Wales has been telling us. Here was one of the most beautiful and elegant women in the world. But that did not impress people. Sheker hachen vehevel hayofi. Grace is deceitful and beauty vain. And yet there are thousands of people to whom she gave one smile, one visit, one letter, one handshake, a single kind word, and they have never forgotten it. Who knows how long it took her – an hour, a minute, a second before she passed on to the next person – and yet its effect remained. The warmth or comfort or hope she gave was like a seed planted in winter that grew and flowered and bore fruit and is still remembered with love today. Not the magnificence of kings nor the splendour of palaces can compare with the grandeur of one small act of chessed, one gesture of kindness, that reaches out to us from person to person, from soul to soul, and lets us know that someone cares.

What did we ever build as Jews? Our ancestors left no pyramids, no ziggurats, no coliseums, no cathedrals. The two Temples we built were destroyed, and of them hardly a trace remains. We were a people who believed that beauty lies not in monuments of stone but in simple human gestures, small deeds, a chessed here, an act of tzedakah there. One mitzvah, said the Rambam, performed out of love, is enough to earn us a share in the World to Come. One harsh word can wreck a life. One kind word can help us to rebuild it.

Therefore, let us remember what this week has taught us, the power of our next act to tilt the moral balance of the world. Here was a woman who was not perfect but who was deeply loved because she used her pain to recognise the pain of others and reach out with the healing touch of human kinship. And that applies not to her only but to each of us. The good we do does live on after us, and has more in it of eternity than wealth or power or beauty or fame.

To her children, Prince William and Prince Harry, we send a message of condolence and of a grief shared. And to her memory we pay this tribute, that she taught us that royalty is less a matter of birth or marriage or official position than of how we behave to others. The true honour is not the honour we receive but the honour we give, especially to those whom others do not honour. A single act of kindness can earn us our share in eternity. That is her children’s consolation, and it is ours.

Yehi zichra baruch. May her memory be a blessing and inspiration. Amen.