JONATHAN SACKS’ LEGACY
This coming week, on 20th Marcheshvan, is the first yahrzeit of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l. At shul we are holding an evening of learning, music, and words of inspiration in his memory this Wednesday, 27th October. Please join us in this tribute to him.
He passed away on the Shabbat of Vayera, last year.
Let me share with you a thought that formed part of the hesped, the eulogy that I gave for him at the levaya the following day.
I recall him giving a sermon a number of years ago on the sidra of Vayera. For Jonathan Sacks, Abraham arguing with G-d, is unprecedented in the history of civilisation – “the argument with Heaven, against Heaven, for the sake of Heaven.”
Abraham offers G-d a bargain: What if there were fifty righteous people in the city? Would you still destroy it? G-d say he would not. Abraham then goes down to forty-five. Again, G-d says he would spare the city. The bargaining goes on. Abraham offers forty, and G-d agrees. Abraham offers thirty, and G-d agrees. Twenty. Ten. And G-d agrees each time. And that is when the bargaining stops.
Rashi gives the explanation that there are five cities in the plain of Sodom. When Abraham challenges G-d to spare the cities for the sake of fifty righteous people, he is, in effect, saying: if there were ten righteous in each city, would You spare the cities and G-d confirms that He would. When Abraham goes down to forty-five, he is saying: what if there were only nine people in each city, would that still be good enough? And G-d confirms that it would. When Abraham goes down to forty, he is shifting from five cities to four cities. If there were four cities with ten righteous people in each, would that be enough? Similarly, thirty is a request about three cities, twenty a request about two cities and ten a request about one city. According to Rashi, Abraham understands that there needs to be a minimum of ten righteous people in a city to constitute a constituency that has enough spiritual energy to save the city.
But Rabbi Sacks offered another explanation, based on Ibn Ezra. Fifty, and forty-five are the same as before. Five cities with ten righteous in each, or five cities with nine righteous in each. But when Abraham goes down to forty, we are not saying four cities with ten righteous in each, but five cities with eight righteous in each. According to this explanation, G-d is prepared to save a city with only eight righteous in it. Thirty takes it down to five cities with six righteous in each. Twenty takes it down to five cities with four righteous in each. And ten is the request to save the five cities if each had two righteous people in each. On each occasion, G-d agrees.
Then Jonathan Sacks asked: why not go further? Why not five? Why shouldn’t one single righteous person be enough to save a city? His answer was profound and tells us a lot about Jonathan Sacks. He said: the definition of a true tzaddik, a righteous person, is someone who can make another tzaddik! He or she is someone who can make someone else righteous. You are not a true tzaddik, said Jonathan Sacks, if you can’t make someone else a tzaddik! The spiritual evaluation of who you are, is computed on the basis of the impact you have on others.
Jonathan Sacks understood that he had a gift to touch the hearts and minds of countless others with his speaking and writing. And he has touched each one of us. Immeasurably. He leaves us with a legacy, which is a challenge. How are we going to affect the lives of others? Can we reach out, beyond ourselves and create a lasting impact on those around us?