‘What have you done for Humanity?’
In the heart of the Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein was threatening to destroy half of Israel and many were fleeing the country, Rabbi Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of England, chose to come to Israel as a sign of solidarity. For Shabbat, he was a guest at Yeshivat Har Etzion where I was studying at the time. On Shabbat night, the Rabbi gave the students an Oneg, with songs, Torah teachings and stories.
Unfortunately, the evening was cut short due to the sirens alerting to missile attacks that sent us all to the sealed rooms. However, one anecdote from this evening accompanies me to this day: Rabbi Sacks told us what led him to choose to become a Rabbi. He had begun a career in the academic world and conducted research on the attitude of modern Jewish thinkers to a number of fundamental questions in Jewish philosophy. He traveled throughout the world interviewing these thinkers with the last person to meet was the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
To his disappointment, to the list of difficult questions the Rebbe answered with short answers of a few words each. The interview rapidly ended, but then the Rebbe surprised him by informing him that now he would like to direct a question to Sacks: “What are you doing for the Jewish people?” Sacks began to explain “In the position I find myself…,” but the Rebbe interrupted him: “You do not find yourself in a position, you put yourself there. What are you doing for the Jewish people!?” The poignant question led Rabbi Sacks to a new path, choosing the Rabbinate and ultimately becoming the chief rabbi of England. I was deeply moved then as now by his ability to make a decision that changes the course of his life.
When I contemplate Rabbi Sacks’ life, it provides a response to an even broader question than that asked by the Rebbe, the question “What are you doing for Humanity”?”At the heart of Rabbi Sacks’ teachings is that religion must bring blessing to the world, a vision in accord with the role given by the Torah to our biblical ancestors: “All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”
This mission is part of the prophetic vision of redemption, which includes spreading Torah and light to humanity. In our generation, there has been no better representative of Judaism to the world, sharing Torah and its values in a dialogue with modern realities, than Rabbi Sacks. Although he did not live in the Holy Land, Rabbi Sacks was in this way privileged to take part in this story of redemption.
Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen is the Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue and the Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity. He is also a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel. His book “Be, Become, Bless – Jewish Spirituality between East and West” was recently published by Maggid.