Gila Sacks closes the Sacks Conversation 2023

A tribute video to Rabbi Sacks for his third yahrzeit

The third annual Sacks Conversation was held at Carnegie Hall, New York on 31 October 2023. The closing remarks were made by Rabbi Sacks' daughter Gila, where she shared her understanding of what her father would say today.

When my father passed away, I don’t think we had any idea of how much of a hunger there would be to keep his teaching alive and bring it to new audiences. But today I think his ideas and his Torah matter more than ever.

The world needs voices of hope, of moral courage, of moderation, and voices that remind us of the role faith has to play in healing the world, not hurting it. Voices that help us to see the dignity of difference and have the courage to believe in a better world.

The work of the Rabbi Sacks Legacy is not about keeping my father’s memory alive or honouring his legacy. It is about continuing the work that he began. And that work matters.

Over the past weeks, since the horrific terrorist attacks in Israel, there have been countless times when I have asked myself, and been asked by others, what would my father have said to us if he was here? We have been desperate for words of comfort or guidance, or hope. Words that could put some order or perspective around this chaos.

Rarely have I felt his absence as strongly as these past weeks. I don’t know what he would have told us to do next, how to move forward from here. But as I spent time with that thought, I realised there is something I think I do know. I think I know what he would have told us not to do.

Firstly, do not, even for a moment, accept that this is the way the world is. We would perhaps be forgiven when faced with such immense tragedy if we were to seek comfort and tell ourselves that maybe, somehow, this is a part of God’s plan. That we don’t understand it, but we can accept it. That maybe we are destined to be a people who dwells alone, a people always under threat.

No, we must not accept this. As my father wrote and taught, in Judaism, faith is not acceptance, but protest against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet, but ought to be. And so we must protest. We must cry out, as Avraham did in this week’s parsha, Hashofet kol ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat, Will the Judge of all the world not do justice? We will not accept it. This is not the way the world is meant to be, and we will constantly call that out.

Secondly, do not, even for a moment, despair. Despair, my father wrote, is not a Jewish emotion. Od lo avda tikvateinu, Our hope, we say, has never been destroyed. But that is no small task.

It takes a great deal of courage to have hope. Optimism is a passive virtue, a belief that things will get better, whereas hope is active, the belief that we can make them better. At its ultimate, he wrote, hope is the belief, not that God has written the script of history, but simply that he has given us the means to save us from ourselves, that we are not wrong to dream, and wish, and work for a better world. So we must find the strength to hope and not to despair.

And thirdly, do not forget why we are here. The State of Israel and the Jewish people face a monumental task right now. But when we cry out, when we hope, when we fight injustice, we are doing so not just for ourselves.

Judaism, my father taught, is not for Jews alone. He wrote, the struggle against Israel is no longer just against Israel. What is at stake in Israel’s survival is the future of freedom itself. Because, make no mistake, this will be the defining battle of the 21st century, which will prevail: the will to power, with its violence, terror, missiles and bombs, or the will to life, with its hospitals, schools, freedoms and rights.

And wider still, he taught that the world in the 21st century needs the Jewish people. It needs Judaism. In an age of ecological devastation, it needs the Jewish reminder that we are placed on Earth, as Adam was, to serve it and conserve it. In an age of economic inequalities, it needs the Jewish insistence on tzedakah, charity as justice. In an age of terror, it needs the Jewish insistence on the sanctity of life.

Today, more than ever, I think he would tell us not to forget that, that we must stand tall, stay true to why we are here, and have the courage to engage with the world and all its challenges. We cannot let ourselves be defined by those who hate us. We will be defined by being a blessing to the world. It says it in black and white.

In this week’s parsha, Avraham was chosen to be a blessing to other nations, venivrechu vo kol goyei ha’aretz, and he was chosen, veshamru derech Hashem la’asot tzedaka umishpat, to keep the way of God doing righteousness and justice. That is why the Jewish people was born.

And as my father wrote, all the pain and all the heartbreak are bearable if we can discern God’s purpose, or hear, however muffled his call. As Nietzsche used to say, He who has a strong enough ‘why’ can bear almost any ‘how’.

I cannot know what my father would have told us to do, but maybe that is a start. Do not accept. Cry out. Protest. Do not despair. Have the courage to hope. And do not lose sight of why you are a Jew, and why, now more than ever, the world needs Judaism and the State of Israel: to be a blessing to others and a model of hope so that we can begin to heal some of this oh so fractured world.

Thank you.