The Stonesetting (Matzeiva) of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l
On Monday 30th August 2021 / 22nd Elul 5781, the stonesetting (matzeiva) of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l took place at Bushey New Cemetery, just outside London. It was officiated by Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski (Golders Green Synagogue) and eulogies were offered, in order, by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Dayan Ivan Binstock (the Dayan of the London Bet Din and Rabbi of St John’s Wood Synagogue) and Lady Elaine Sacks. You can watch the eulogies and read their transcripts here.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
Dayanim shlita, Rabbanim shlita, Rebbetzens, Her Excellency, the Israeli Ambassador, members of the Sacks family, ladies and gentlemen. On behalf of our entire community, I extend the renewed condolences of us all to Lady Elaine, Joshua, Dina, Gila, and their families, Rabbi Lord Sacks’ brothers and their families, and the entire mishpachah.
The Talmud Yerushalmi, Masechet Shekalim declares: le’ossim nefashot letzaddikim, divreihen kein zichrona. The true memorials to the upright are their words. [Talmud Yerushalmi, Shekalim 2:5]
In the same way as a stonemason engraves letters and words into a slab of stone, and even though the stonemason might move to another place, what he has engraved remains there, so too when an upright person with his or her words makes an impact on the hearts and minds of others, even though that person might pass away the impact remains forever.
How very true this is of my illustrious predecessor Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zecher tzaddik livracha, for whom we are consecrating the matzeivah here today.
In Anim Zemirot we chant the praises of the Almighty: Dimu otecha velo chefi yeshcha – Your greatness is not in what You have, vayishavucha lefi ma’asecha – We treasure You because of Your deeds.
And so too, with great people, we praise them primarily not because of their ability or potential, vayishavucha lefi ma’asecha. We treasure them because of their achievements. And today we recall a person who achieved so much in such an extraordinary manner. He was a great leader.
At the beginning of parshat Nitzavim, which we shall read this coming Shabbat, the Torah presents to us four types of leaders: Rasheychem, Shivtaychem, Ziknaychem v’shotraychem. Your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers. [Deut. 29:9]
But it’s difficult to explain because three of them; your heads, (your elders and your officers), are leaders. One of them, (your tribes), they are followers. So Rashi tells us that actually there are three types of leaders here, and the first is Rasheychem leShivtaychem. Your heads of your tribes. But there’s a difficulty in that because if that’s the case, why didn’t the Torah add the lamed to be Rasheychem leShivtaychem. HaKtav veHakabbalahbrings the Targum Yonatan ben Uziel to explain that actually there are four types of leaders here. Rasheychem, that refers to your titular heads. Shivtaychem, the word shevet of course means a tribe, but it also means a leader because shevet means a staff or a sceptre. It’s what a great leader holds when he declares “Acharye” – “After me!” So when it comes to a shevet, we’re speaking about a leader through whose actions the nation is admirably led. In the same way 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.
In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks we had a Rosh, he was our leader, but he was something well beyond it. He was also our shevet. Through his extraordinary accomplishments, he led us in action. And the most remarkable thing about his achievements is that it’s not just in the past tense that we refer to him.
At the beginning of parshat Vayelech which we will read immediately after parshat Nitzavim, the Torah tells us, “Vayelech Moshe, vayidaber et-hadevarim ha’eleh el-kol-Yisrael.” “Moshe went and he spoke these words to all of Israel”. [Deut. 31:1] The Noam Megadim explains beautifully: “Vayelech Moshe “means Moshe departed. He died. “vayidaber et hadevarim ha’eleh” – but even after his death he continues to speak these words of Torah to all of Israel.
And how true that is until this very day. And so too with Rabbi Sacks. Vayelech. Sadly, he passed away, Vayidaber. But he continues to speak to us. He continues to address us, to direct us, to guide us and most significantly of all, he continues to inspire us.
Two extraordinary things have happened since he passed away. The first was in the immediate aftermath of his death. The outpouring of grief from so many people right across the globe, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, who just spontaneously expressed their deep sorrow because of the impact that he had made in their lives. It was absolutely overwhelming. Secondly, it’s extraordinary how right now, Rabbi Sacks continues to be quoted, to be mentioned. Through all the crises and the challenges of our times around the world, his words continue to resonate. And so we find his words being mentioned in articles, in papers, and comments continuously.
Vayelech, he departed. Vayidaber, he continues to speak to us.
And he taught and he expressed messages on so many subjects. He was a master of so many disciplines, but for me, there was one particular message of his which I believe was the most significant of all for us.
In parshat Vayelech the Torah continues to give the concluding mitzvah of the Torah. Mitzvah number 613, “ve’atta kitvu lachem et-hashirah hazot vellamdah et-Bnei-Yisrael simah b’feehem…” – “And now write down this song. Teach it to the Children of Israel, place it in their mouths.” [Deut. 31:19]
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. But we would’ve expected the Torah to tell us when engaging in Jewish education, “Place it in the minds of people. Place it in the hearts of people.” Why are we told “simah b’feehem” – “place it in the mouths of people”? 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 method is to make the food appeal and to make the experience of eating a fun, and novel, and exciting, and happy one. So as a result, the child will automatically open his or her mouth and digest the food.
That was the shita, the way of Rabbi Sacks. He prompted all of us to open our mouths ready. To take in his teachings. That gift of his, to make words just seem magical, as a result of which, we would sit in awe at his feet and digest everything he had to give us. For him, Torah was shira, the song. The melody. The source of great joy and meaning in life. And here I believe was his greatest message for us. Thanks to him, we have been able to stand upright with pride. Pride in our Judaism, pride in an authentic, Torah way of life. Pride in the contribution that Judaism gives to the rest of the world, and it’s not just Jewish people. I’ve come across so many non-Jewish people of faith who tell me the extent to which Rabbi Sacks’ teachings have enabled them to have pride in their beliefs, and to take pride in the place that religion can have within the public square.
Thanks to the monumental contributions that Rabbi Lord Sacks gave to our civilisation, we have been empowered to appreciate the importance of religion in an ever-increasing secular age, and the relevance of tradition in an untraditional world.
Today, we are consecrating an even, a stone, and Targum Onkeles on Parshat Vayechi explains to us the significance of the stone in Jewish tradition. He tells us that even is a composite term; it is made up of two words, “av” and “ben“, parent and child. In the same way as a stone is indestructible in the face of natural elements, so too Jewish tradition is indestructible when it is faithfully passed down from parent to child, from generation through to generation.
Today, we stand as one with the Sacks family, with Lady Elaine, with their children and grandchildren. Those who were privileged to receive continuously at firsthand that inspiration from av to ben. From parent to child. And who have been so deeply inspired to continue to walk in the ways of Rabbi Lord Sacks. But his influence and impact reached well beyond his family. It reached all of us and a wealth of others. It reached the entire globe. And he taught us all the power of tradition. How we have the responsibility to convey it responsibly, the av to ben, from generation through to generation. Thanks to his contribution to our lives, we have been all the more empowered to be able to do so. Yehi zichro baruch. May the memory of this extraordinary man be for an eternal blessing.
Dayan Ivan Binstock
Dayan Ivan Binstock
Bireshus Chief Rabbi, Rosh Beth Din Dayan Gelley, the Israeli Ambassador, Lady Sacks – Elaine, Joshua, Dina, Gila, Alan and Brian. Thank you for giving me the honour of saying a few words on this occasion, לעילוי נשמת ידיד נפשי, in the memory of my dear friend Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, .זכר צדיק לברכה
ויאמר לו יהונתן מחר חדש, ונפקדת כי יפקד מושביך
“And Jonathan said to him: ‘Tomorrow is the New Moon. You will be missed, for your seat will be empty.’”
These words, from the opening of the Haftarah for Machar Chodesh, can surely be applied back to Jonathan Sacks.
Next week is the new moon of Rosh Hashanah. Your seat is empty, your voice is missing.
I look at the seat he used to occupy in St. John’s Wood shul, the pulpit which would occupy with that tallis almost falling off but never did, because of his energetic delivery.
ונפקדת כי יפקד מושביך “You are so sorely missed, for your place is empty.”
Nine months on, it is still difficult to comprehend that a man who bestrode both the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds like a Colossus with his voice and his pen, is no more.
In reading the parsha on Shabbos, a phrase leapt out at me. When the Israelites would enter the land of Israel, they were told that the Torah had to be written on stones. The passuk says, it should be written Ba’er Heiteiv, [meaning] “well clarified”. Rashi comments, Beshiv’im Loshon [meaning] “in seventy languages”. I could not help but think also of this contemporary master exponent of Torah. Ba’er Heiteiv: Jonathan Sacks’ superb clarity and international reach.
What has become apparent over these months is how incredibly hard Jonathan Sacks worked. It was not just the books, the essays, the lectures, the broadcasts and the interviews, which, thankfully, now are part of the public legacy; it is also the innumerable conversations and interactions he had with individuals: Rabbis and Rebbetzens, scholars and students, laypeople and prominent figures of all faiths, giving of this, answering their letters and queries, advising them on their books and articles. He gave of his time freely and graciously. There are a number of public figures whose keynote addresses were significantly enhanced because of anonymous input from Jonathan Sacks. And all this is of course apart from the role he cherished most: as husband, father, grandfather.
The key to his work ethic was given by Dina Sacks in the tribute she wrote in the London Jewish News. She said:
“He always knew he was running out of time, not believing he would live past the age of 40, having had more than one previous brush with death. In fact, death was seemingly always in the back of his mind.”
I had always known Jonathan Sacks as an intellectual, philosopher, outstanding speaker and writer.
When we started working on the Koren Machzor, I began to see more closely the man of deep faith and profound spirituality, to whom tefillah – prayer – was so important. We had actually seen this manifest itself in a practical way at St. John’s Wood shul. Whenever he was with us for a Shabbos, as long as there wasn’t another chiyuv, he would run to the amud to daven Minchah on Kabbolas Shabbos, or Pesukei Dezimra on Shabbos morning.
We were sitting discussing the Rosh Hashanah Machzor and considering which prayers ought to be omitted or included in adapting a regular Ashkenazi Machzor for Anglo-Jewry. We came to discuss duchaning, the Priestly Blessing. Now the Routledge, the old Machzor for Anglo-Jewry, has a silent meditation to be read during the Priests chanting, but no reference to prayers about dreams which are found in other Machzorim. This prayer refers to the fulfilment of our good dreams and the overturning of our bad dreams. “Presumably, we should leave this out?” I said. “It was never part of Minhag Anglia.”
“No, Ivan, we must have it, even if we put it at the back. This prayer is very precious to me.”
Although not so many of us had noticed it at the time, Jonathan Sacks revealed his deep spiritual yearning in a comment to Sue Lawley when he was on Desert Island Discs as Chief Rabbi Elect in April 1991. Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld reminded us of this when he spoke at the funeral. One of Jonathan Sacks’ chosen records was a niggun, Tzam’a Lecha Nafshi,
“My soul thirsts for You, כָּמַ֣הּ לְךָ֣ בְשָׂרִ֑י בְּאֶֽרֶץ־צִיָּ֖ה וְעָיֵ֣ף בְּלִי־מָֽיִם כֵּן בַּקֹּ֣דֶשׁ חֲזִיתִ֑ךָ – my flesh longs for You, In a desolate and weary land with no water. So, too, may I see You in holiness.”
When asked what would be his favourite disc, the Rabbi said: Tzam’a Lecha Nafshi, “My soul thirsts for You.” He said, quite simply, “I hope that one day something like that will be my epitaph – that his soul thirsted for God.”
And here we see, here is the stone with the simple epitaph, צמאה לך נפשי” – my soul thirsts for You.”
That spiritual intensity often reached its climax when Jonathan Sacks would daven Neilah. Most years, he would be in Western Marble Arch, with his dear friend Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld and his family. But twenty years ago, we persuaded him to walk over to St. John’s Wood from Marble Arch for Neilah. The Neilah, of course, was powerful and lifted us with its passion. Yet, all these years later, it is the sermon he gave before Neilah that still rings in my head.
Jonathan Sacks had the uncanny ability to look at the world around us, whether it was politics, popular culture, religion or technology – anything in fact – and derive a moral lesson for us all.
“Do you remember the old days,” he said, “being in the airport, schlepping those heavy suitcases? How the handles would dig into your hands and you had to put them down? And then, the invention of suitcases with wheels!”
The metaphor was so clear! You could carry something that had seemed burdensome in a manageable way.
Jonathan Sacks has given us a legacy that is so straightforward to carry. Whenever a new mode of communication came out, he embraced it in order to make his teachings more accessible. Whether it was Facebook or Twitter, the YouTube video or WhatsApp. Whether it was the whiteboard animations or the TED Talk, Jonathan Sacks was quick to recognise the opportunities these platforms offered, and maximise their use to spread his Torah and teachings.
Jonathan, you have bequeathed us a Torah on wheels! Easy to take with us, wherever we go. Vibrant. Comprehensible. Relevant. For so many, you have made it possible for the teachings of Torah to be understood and applied to our lives.
As we approach Rosh Hashanah, may you be a meilitz yosher on behalf of your family, the community and, inspired by you, may we grow into the best version of ourselves, inscribed for a kesiva vachasima tova, a happy and healthy new year. Amen.
Lady Elaine Sacks
Lady Elaine Sacks
Over the last few months so many memories have come flooding in: All our times together, all the achievements, adventures, travels, friendships. We met in Cambridge at the Jewish Society when Rabbi Lew and Rabbi Vogel would come up each week to give a shiur. This was a whole experience to me. It meant a great deal and influenced the way I felt about Yiddishkeit, and helped me in the coming years.
Jonathan and I travelled to many places far-flung and nearer to home, but nothing meant more than precious trips to Israel. About five years ago, we were in Israel for Pesach with our family. During Chol Hamoed on a tiyul, we suddenly heard a chorus of, “We love you, Rabbi Sacks.” A group of Israeli teenagers had recognised him, and were not shy to voice their affection. And now there are plans and projects to include the teachings of Rabbi Sacks in schools and colleges in Israel. I cannot tell you how moving I find this – that his work and thoughts can be taught, and make a real, difference in Israel.
Over these months, I have had time to browse through some of the many, many books on our shelves. There’s one section taken up with Jonathan’s books in translation. There are books in Korean, Turkish, Dutch, Italian, German, French, Spanish. So many dedications from cities all over South America. And work is in progress now for translations into Arabic. It is extraordinary to feel that all these people around the world are reading his works and learning from his teachings.
I am very grateful for the last few years, spending quiet times together in Golders Green. Going out on our own, after the years as Chief Rabbi, was such an adventure. On a bus to the cinema, one Motzei Shabbat, we overheard excited teenagers behind us phoning their friends. “You’ll never guess who is on this bus!”
And last summer, we had the blessing of celebrating our Golden Wedding together with our children and grandchildren in our garden, in a brief lapse of the COVID restrictions.
I have been overwhelmed by all the love, all the care, all the friendships, old and more recent over these past months. Old friends have been writing, catching up with memories and updates about children and grandchildren. And in these COVID times, many beautiful walks filled with friendship, conversation, and many cups of coffee in the park.
I have always been sure that Hashem has been watching over us both. In difficult times, in bad times, something has always happened to turn it, to show that God is there guarding us. Even at the end, it was quick. How often do we see someone linger in pain and distress?
My dear husband passed in the early hours of Shabbat. His last words were, ”Good Shabbos” to the very kind doctor. Who could ask for more than that?
Tzam’a Lecha Nafshi. My soul thirsts for you.