November 10, 2020
Photo by emyerson/Getty Images

For obvious reasons, January 2020 feels like a lifetime ago, but I can nevertheless recall with vivid clarity one evening that month when I heard Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speak at Sephardic Temple. Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom,  died November 7 at the age of 72 after a struggle with cancer.

I remember him as he appeared in January. Sacks stood before a crowd of 600 people in the temple’s sanctuary. There was an air of privilege permeating the pews, a feeling that we were lucky to be hearing live remarks from one of the world’s most prolific and oratorically gifted Jewish leaders for the synagogue’s centennial celebration.

I was reporting on the evening program for the Jewish Journal. I was typing up key points from my seat when the man next to me asked if I could find another way to take notes, as he couldn’t hear Sacks speak over the sounds of my fingers punching the keys. So I found a pen and began scribbling in my notepad the highlights of the lecture.

Here are some of the points Sacks made:

  • The best way to fight anti-Semitism is to wear your identity with pride.
  • Israel is the home of the Jewish people, and this is why we must defend the state of Israel.
  • Anti-Zionism is one form of the new anti-Semitism.

At Sephardic Temple, Sacks had discussed the challenges facing contemporary Jewish life, from the virus that is anti-Semitism to the miracle that is the State of Israel, speaking eloquently in a soft British accent. But it was his statements about how to live a more enriching Jewish life that have stuck with me.

Speaking persuasively about the power of Shabbat, Sacks said, “Shabbat was made for the twenty-first century,” an effective way to unplug from everyday distractions, whether cable news, Facebook feeds, or dating apps. Sacks also described the Daf Yomi (learning one page of Talmud every day) as an “antithesis to our short attention spans. There’s nothing like it — the Jewish commitment to studying and learning.”

But Rabbi Sacks’ impact on my life extended beyond the one event. During the height of the pandemic, Rabbi Sacks made an unexpected appearance in my apartment and continued to teach me about how to incorporate Judaism in my life more meaningfully.

Our interaction began because COVID-19 left me with much more time at home. With my days lacking the structure they once had, I had taken to praying and wrapping tefillin in the mornings. When I first started wrapping, I wasn’t exactly sure how to do it. Which arm do I wrap? How many times do I wrap around the arm? What to do once I’ve wrapped all the way to my palm?

So I did what any millennial does when he or she is trying to do something new but gotten stuck: I Googled it.

One of the top search results was a Chabad video with step-by-step instructions on how to wrap tefillin. Rabbi Sacks appears in the introduction to the clip, explaining the reasons for wrapping tefillin and citing the “V’ahavta,” which says, “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart…Take these instructions…Bind them as a sign on your head and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead.”

It was an a-ha moment, the rare instance when I’d seen Jews do something all the time, had done it a few times myself, but had never understood why we do it.

And here was Rabbi Sacks explaining why we do it.

I had learned something, and I had Rabbi Sacks to thank for that. Going forward, I will search for the meaning of why I do things in the name of my faith. Sacks reminded me that sometimes it just takes a teacher — whether educating in-person or from afar — to bring that meaning to light. Sacks was that teacher for many, bringing the joy of Judaism and the promise of deep engagement to each Jew he met.

May his memory be a blessing.

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