A Tribute to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of Blessed Memory
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim
Parshat Chayei Sarah describes how Abraham sought a burial place for his wife, Sarah, after her passing. He approached the local inhabitants saying: “I am a stranger and an inhabitant with you. Give me burial property with you, so that I may bury my dead from before me.”(Genesis 23:4) Abraham’s preamble of “I am a stranger and an inhabitant with you” requires further explanation. If Abraham is a stranger, then he is not an inhabitant and vice-versa. Rashi explains that the simple meaning is that Abraham was appealing to his neighbors to provide a burial plot for his wife. He explains to them that although he is a foreigner, he has become a fellow citizen, and is, therefore, deserving of burying his deceased wife in his new land.
Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik explains Abraham’s preamble differently. Abraham feels it necessary to explain his need to have a separate, dedicated burial spot for his family member. Abraham does so by explaining his nuanced identity. On the one hand, he is now a citizen of the land, a contributing and caring member of the broader society. Indeed, he is an inhabitant, a citizen. On the other hand, he and his family have their own unique religious beliefs and practices, to which they are to be fully committed. Proper Jewish burial must be done separately in accordance with various traditions and practices. In this sense, Abraham is a stranger.
Abraham, often thought of as the first Jew, teaches us the complex identity of the Jew amongst the peoples of the world. The Jew is to be a model, caring and contributing citizen of the world. But the Jew is also to be committed to Judaism and its religious observances, which are unique and different from the practices of other nations of the world. In this sense, the Jew is a stranger. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, modeled this nuanced identity perhaps more perfectly than anyone else in our generation. He positively impacted all humanity in the most profound way. He was a citizen of the world, spreading positivity, hope, and blessing to all human beings. Yet, he was also a stranger, a man of deep faith committed to Jewish learning, practices, and traditions. He transitioned between these two identities with tremendous nobility and dignity, influencing all with his brilliant mind, unique erudite style, kind heart, and love of all of God’s creatures.
Let us attempt to model the ways of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, and may his soul be elevated in Gan Eden.