Rabbi Sacks will be remembered for his ability to deftly communicate the most complex, original, and yet relevant ideas to a wide audience. How was he so brilliantly able to achieve such a monumental task?
The Book of Proverbs (22:6) states that one should “Teach the young according to their way, for when they grow old they will not turn away from it.” The key component of this verse is the notion of teaching “according to their way”, meaning the pedagogical requirement to differentiate between the range of abilities and learning styles.
As a teacher, Rabbi Sacks had the unparalleled ability to touch the souls of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. He could navigate the seemingly conflicting worlds of the secular and the sacred, modernity and tradition, the lecture halls of the university and the study halls of the yeshiva. He spoke about the universal human issues of our time and so was understood universally. In doing so, he could know his audience and inspire them with messages relevant to each one.
This ability, however, requires the courage and audacity to reach beyond the classic, conventional thinking. Relevance is a quality found in intrepid, independent and innovative thought.
The Talmud (Chagigah 3a) records a story regarding Rabbi Yochanan ben Beroka and Rabbi Elazar ben Chisma. On a visit to their teacher, Rabbi Yehoshua he asked them what novel idea had been taught in the study hall that day. They responded, “We are your students, and we drink from your water” — meaning all of our Torah knowledge comes from you, so how can we tell you something you have not already learned? He replied, “Even so, there cannot be a study hall without a chiddush — a novel teaching.”
The written Torah is a perfect, complete, and absolute crystallisation of divine knowledge. Find one mistake in a sefer Torah and the entire scroll is unfit for use. Conversely, according to the 17th century commentator Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller, the Oral Torah, which was also conveyed by God at Mount Sinai, allows room for novel interpretation. This is not limited to the classic rabbinic texts such as the Midrash, Mishnah or Gemara, but in its broadest sense includes novel teachings throughout the generations of Jewish scholarship.
In transmitting his will in both written and oral forms, God bestowed on humanity the gift of scriptural creativity. This not only ensures that divine law can be applied in the modern world through rabbinic consensus but provides space for the exposition of the eternal messages of the Torah within the arena of contemporary society. The 19th century sage, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, explains that moreover, humanity’s spiritual development is dependent on the capacity for creative interpretation.
It was his ability to innovate resolutions between the many worlds he inhabited that made Rabbi Sacks such a compelling speaker. He had such a mastery over the English language that he could capture the essence of the most knotty issues and impart his wisdom to others. His words gave meaning to ideas most of us could never have contemplated, yet when he spoke, he somehow managed to make you feel like his intellectual equal.
When faced with scholarly conflict, he never retreated into the dogmatic affirmation of a particular side. His originality stemmed from an assiduous fidelity to the truth, and a persistence in reconciling secular wisdom with the truths of Torah while seeking answers that spoke directly to the hearts and souls of those he wished to inspire.
Every very great speaker must know their audience. Every great teacher must know their students. And when Rabbi Sacks taught, he not only taught with every fibre of his soul, his profound, original thoughts resonated with every fibre of the souls he kindled.
It seems impossible to countenance our immeasurable loss.
There is a verse in the book of Daniel (12:3) which states that “Those who teach righteousness to the multitude will shine like the stars forever.” One explanation is that the starlight we see on a clear night has taken millions of years to reach our eyes. For all we know, the stars we gaze at might well have died eons ago. Yet their light continues to shine long after they have gone. Similarly, the influence a teacher has on their students continues long after they have left this world. While we feel utterly bereft at our loss, Rabbi Sacks’ vast legacy will continue to shine in the hearts, the minds, and the souls of everyone he touched for generations to come.
Rabbi Dr Moshe Freedman is the rabbi of New West End Synagogue in London