Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis at the Stonesetting
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.
Here is the first one, offered by 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.