I know, there’s been an election in America. That’s not what I want to write about. Shortly after Shabbat (the Sabbath) finished, the Anglo-Jewish community heard that Rabbi Lord Sacks, the Emeritus Chief Rabbi, had died. I still feel shocked and am struggling to process things. I never met him personally (although I’ve been in the same room as him a couple of times), but I own ten of his books, and that’s excluding his prayer books (siddur, five machzorim and hagaddah). I’ve read far too many of his divrei Torah (Torah thoughts) to count over the years as a long-term subscriber to his email essays and updates. Just this year, I’ve seen him speak live online several times on video during lockdown. I quote him a lot in my own divrei Torah. I knew he had cancer, but I had no idea that it was this far advanced.

Rabbi Sacks was a major influence on my thought. He was really the first rabbi who showed me that it’s possible to belong to both Orthodox Jewish society and wider Western culture, not just as a bidieved (exceptional, after-the-event circumstance), but as a deliberate choice. The Jewish community in the UK is very small, about 400,000 people, I believe the smallest mainstream religious community in the UK, but we have a much bigger societal presence than that. It’s not by any means entirely due to Rabbi Sacks, but his eloquence and media presence ensured that he was an ambassador for the community on the wider stage. I suspect the community under-rated him in his lifetime, partly due to a few controversies he was in, and also because his ability to explain difficult ideas from Judaism and Western philosophy in an accessible way made him sound less intelligent and original than he was; he was never a ‘difficult’ read in the way that e.g. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik was.

To lose Rabbi Sacks and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz within a few months of each other is a massive loss to global the Jewish community in general and the Centrist or Modern Orthodox community in particular. Barukh dayan ha’emet.

***

My second, and hopefully final, autism assessment appointment has been delayed until 2 December. I’m not quite sure why. It’s a little frustrating, but I feel OK about it. At least the NHS warned me in advance this time.

***

As for how I’ve been, I got up earlier than usual on Friday and managed to get in more than an hour of work on my novel before Shabbat. It was slow going, re-reading and editing, and my heart wasn’t really in it, but I slogged on.

I think my parents thought I was fairly grumpy on Friday night. To be honest, they were right. I didn’t mean to sound grumpy, but everything I said came out wrong, when I was able to do more than grunt and shrug. I’m not always good at understanding or even spotting my emotions, so if they hadn’t told me, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. They asked if I was anxious about anything and I initially said no, but after a while I realised that I have a new job, where I’m worried about letting a friend down and about travelling on public transport during lockdown and catching COVID, and even beyond that I’m worried about juggling work, Torah study, writing my weekly devar Torah and working on my novel as well as looking for further work for when this finishes, so it’s not surprising that I am a bit anxious.

***

I finished reading the anthology of writings by Rav Kook that I’ve been reading for some weeks now (The Lights of Penitence, the Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters and Poems). This post has already been dominated by Jewish stuff/rabbis, so I will not say much, just that, although I had read some of Rav Kook’s writings before, I had not realised his enormous relevance to the contemporary world. In a world where we are encouraged to think in terms of binary opposites (religion OR science; the individual OR the community; tradition OR modernity; nationalism OR universalism), Rav Kook says, “No, God is bigger than that, God is big enough for both, and more.” Essential reading.

***

After Shabbat I had a Zoom call with a bunch of friends from my Oxford days. We tend to meet up every six months or so and are now doing it on Zoom because of COVID. I enjoy seeing them, even virtually, but I sometimes end up feeling a bit negative about myself as I’m the only one without a good job (university lecturer/writer and two lawyers, although one is a law teacher at the moment) and one had his baby daughter with him on the call for a while. I thought I was over this kind of looking over my shoulder and comparing myself to others, but obviously not.

I mentioned about my novel to them the last time we spoke, really to have something to say and not to sound pathetic for being long-term unemployed, but I feel really uncomfortable talking about it and I’m not sure why. It’s partly that I never like talking about myself, but I think also that I’ve told people that the novel is semi-autobiographical, which it is, but now I’m trying to walk that back because (a) a lot of it is NOT autobiographical and (b) I don’t want people assuming that certain bits are autobiographical when they are not (or, in some instances, when they are, but I don’t want to make that public. In particular, I’m vaguely worried about someone I used to know realising one of the characters was originally based on her, even though I’ve now developed her beyond that).

I wanted to do some work on my novel tonight, but after the Zoom call and dinner, it was too late, plus I’ve been thinking about Rabbi Sacks and wanting to write this post.

14 thoughts on “Rabbi Sacks, and Comparing Myself to Friends

  1. Sorry to hear about his loss, yet it sounds like his wisdom and words will live on. He had a great impact on you and many others which can’t be discounted. Comparing ourselves to others is natural but can be destructive to the self-esteem and confidence. I’m always telling my older daughter this.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Apparently he had fought off cancer twice in his life and never thought it worth writing about, because he believed medical matters to be utterly in Gd’s hands. Knowing that has changed how I grew up with his words- what an extraordinary soul he was- to have accomplished and taught so much and to so many, even outside the community- remaining ever optimistic and silent about his own suffering. His life humbles me. He really was ‘rabbenu’.

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  3. It’s kind of sad to first learn about someone after they have passed. I went to his Wikipedia page and was so impressed by what I read. Rabbi Saks appears to be to Judaism what George MacDonald was to Christianity. They both were controversial figures because they were falsely accused of relativism and universalism when they were only trying to communicate God’s involvement with all people. They also both felt like faith had something to say to a materialistic world and was not in conflict with honest scientific pursuit. This was my favourite quote “Rabbi Saks stressed that mainstream rabbinic teachings teach that wisdom, righteousness, and the possibility of a true relationship with God are all available in non-Jewish cultures and religions as an ongoing heritage from the covenant that God made with Noah and all his descendants so the tradition teaches that one does not need to be Jewish to know God or truth, or to attain salvation.” I so appreciate it when this is acknowledged without watering down the truths that are not negotiable and should not be watered down in a faith. I am glad that Rabbi Saks writings are available even though he has passed so more people can benefit from them.

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  4. This is a lovely tribute to Rabbi Lord Sacks. His impact was truly felt worldwide, even outside the Orthodox Jewish community.

    I haven’t read Rav Kook, but I may want to take a look now. I’m also not into that binary way of thinking.

    I don’t want to write about the election in America either!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you!

    If you want to read Rav Kook, I would recommend starting with The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook by Rabbi Ari Ze’ev Schwartz, who sets out the main themes of Rav Kook’s writings with lengthy extracts (some passages were suppressed in earlier editions of Rav Kook’s writing by his son and his main student who were his literary executors and considered them too radical).

    Liked by 2 people

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