Shaya Cohen -


My Debt to Rabbi Sacks

[I was asked to write a piece for the passing of the great Rabbi Sacks. Here it is]

I sang in the choir, but my connection to Rabbi Sacks was not particularly close; we exchanged few words of consequence. I suspect that my relative age and insecurity kept me from establishing much of a personal relationship.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Sacks continues to have profound impact on my life. He led me down paths I would not have ventured if our connection was only through his writing, as striking and remarkable as it was.

I first heard Rabbi Sacks speak when I was a teenager over from America. He spoke at Dunstan Road. It was the 1980s, and I was entranced by his speech. As it happens, the topic was not particularly holy; he was making a speech he would have never made later in life – a fire-and-brimstone condemnation of the wartime Catholic Church. But the punchy power of his rhetoric still rings in my ears, even though it was the messenger, and not the message, that impressed me.

It was only later, at St. John’s Wood, that Rabbi Sacks changed my understanding of Torah. I specifically recall one speech that shifted my world: He spoke of the value Adam found in Eve in the moment after the curses from Hashem: Adam was reminded of his own mortality, and heard of childbirth. In that instant, Adam lost his own selfish future, and found value through the mother of his children. As she became valuable to him, he did what he had already done for every other animal: he gave her a name.

The thought itself is lovely, of course, but what Rabbi Sacks did not explicitly say (but which was nevertheless implicit in this and so much of his work), was far more important: that it is possible for someone, thousands of years after the Torah was given, to find something valuable and new in the text. In this way, I learned from Rabbi Sacks that the Torah is a deeply personal, egalitarian text: “It is not far from you.”

This was the smashing impact Rabbi Sacks had on my life: that the text is calling to each of us, regardless of whether we had learned for decades or mere minutes. Of all his brilliant ideas and insights, this is what I consider the greatest: that new understandings based on close reading of the text are a key part of what it means to be a Jew. Rabbi Sacks shared that text can be read with fresh eyes, that there are secrets right at the surface that speak to all of us.

And so Rabbi Sacks is more alive to me now than when he was at the pulpit at St. John’s Wood: his approach to Torah and gorgeous turns of phrase continue to inspire me and my own writing, both in consonance and dissonance. I believe he has led a fundamental and wonderful change to the way the Jewish people approach the Torah and our relationship and partnership with Hashem.


Comments are welcome!