We made a pact before Friday night Shabbos dinner. No politics. Some guests were liberals, some conservatives, and with the tension of the election still suspended in the air, we all agreed to set the topic aside.
At some point before Shabbat, news of the passing of the Talmudic sage Rav Dovid Feinstein rippled throughout the community.
As it turns out, the host of our small, masked and socially distanced Shabbat meal had at one point lived in downtown Manhattan, near the Lower East Side, where Rav Dovid Feinstein’s famed yeshiva headquarters had been the jewel crown of the Jewish community there ever since the great stature of his father, Rav Moshe Feinstein, had imbued it with his leadership and scholarship, beginning almost a century ago.
Our host, from time to time, a cameo at this yeshiva, regaled us with his personal inspirational stories and memories of this gentle righteous rav who had just died.
I had remembered a couple of years back coming across a question posed to rabbis about which three Jews they would choose to have dinner with if they could choose anyone since the beginning of time. The answers ranged from the biblical Moses, Abraham, and David to leaders such as Rabbi Akiva and the Vilna Gaon and so many others. One answer stood out. Rav Feinstein’s. Which persona would this sage choose? He would find three poor people who could use the meal.
This was Rav Feinstein’s “Torah.” His rigorous erudition and compassionate humanity were inextricable.
Shabbat dinner ended and not a political peep was made. We sang. We ate. We schmoozed. We talked of the inspiration of Rav Dovid Feinstein.
Next morning, as I am enjoying a late cup of coffee with one of my neighbors, we hear a howl or two. Then a tentative honk. Then another few, before it became a sustained car-honking fest. They must have called the election! we realized.
For the rest of the day the Upper West Side was transformed into a party.
Central Park, the streets — even when you were indoors the streets’ noise and atmosphere floated into your apartment. As a Sabbath observer, I didn’t know the details of the news fully. We wondered what exactly had transpired. In our neck of the woods you could assume the cheering meant the election had been called for Biden, but we didn’t know which state had been the fateful one that clinched the election. There was this sense of waiting until the exit of Shabbat to pick up where we left off with the political news of the election prior to Shabbat’s entrance.
Then Havdalah came. And as soon as it concluded, the bitter and painful news of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ passing on that very Shabbat came with it. I was shocked. Tears wet my eyes, for someone I had never met. I and so many Jews the world over, had his name Yaakov Zvi ben Liba, on our lips in our daily prayers, as we prayed for this towering and beloved leader’s healing.
With that news, in a split second, the election and its importance was erased for me. Although politics is obviously more than ancillary to the primacy of faith in my life, it is still part of life. But Rabbi Sacks, he penetrated my mind, my heart, my soul.
Politicians come and go, even as politics is an integral part of life and shapes our world. But there is a limit to what even a wonderful politician is in our lives. A Rabbi Sacks, on the other hand, is someone who entered the deeper chambers of our hearts and minds, someone who stays with us forever. Both ends of this past historic Shabbat were framed by the news of loss of Torah personas. For me, it is these people who touch the true spiritual, emotional and psychological essence of our lives.
For Rabbi Sacks, in particular, I, together with hundreds of thousands of people the world over, have been grieving his irreplaceable loss.
I came across his first book when it was sent to the IJN, and have been a disciple of his ever since. I was riveted by his thinking and his eloquence. His voice became the prism through which I drew my Judaism.
As his rabbinic celebrity rippled out to the world, I rejoiced with tremendous pride. I remember a few years back watching a TED talk of his, and thinking to myself, watching Rabbi Sacks deliver a talk is like listening to and watching a symphony unfold.
Just like the archetype Avraham he so often wrote and spoke of, with his unmatched dignity, grace and love, he brought Judaism and the essence of Judaic ideas to the world. I can’t stop reading and being inspired by the outpouring of tributes to him.
I prayed from my Rabbi Sacks siddur and spent seder nights with him by virtue of his Haggadah. His persona, his dignity of presence, his eloquence of speech, and his heart bursting with love and compassion made me so proud to be Jewish and helped give shape to various intellectual struggles, doubts or questions that deepen over life.
This Shabbat, no political pact of silence will be necessary. It’s clear. The floodgates of Rabbi Sacks’ legacy have just begun. I know what we’ll all be talking about and whom well be learning from as the sun sets on this painful week of loss and ushers in this coming Shabbat.
Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountain Jewish News