Dayan Ivan Binstock 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 second eulogy, offered by Dayan Binstock (the Dayan of the London Bet Din and Rabbi of St John’s Wood Synagogue).

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.’”

[1 Samuel 20:18]

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 niggunTzam’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.