Personal recollections

November 14, 2020 by Rabbi Chaim Ingram
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I first met Rabbi Lord Sacks. as a student at an Encounter with Chabad Shabbat at Lubavitch House in north London…writes Rabbi Chaim Ingram.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks at Sydney’s Central Synagogue [2012] Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

My three friends who were present were very excited that he was to address us during se’uda shelishit on Shabbat afternoon. Notwithstanding that he was a student like us, albeit a postgrad student studying philosophy at Cambridge, he appeared to stand a head taller.

These friends were about two or three years my senior and therefore his peers.  I recall my best friend and mashpia, Mordechai Beck, telling me that this man, seemingly set for a highly successful career in academia, had rung him in a state of restlessness and asked him: Mordechai, I feel a calling to serve Anglo-Jewry. What should I be doing?

 I still recall the thrill of excitement that coursed through my veins as I listened, rapt, to this young Cantabrian speak. He said that what Chabad had so far taught him more than anything else was that Judaism was a 24/7 occupation.  For a Jew there can be no compartmentalisation. A Jew serves G-D when he eats, when he sleeps, when he talks, when he relaxes, not just when he prays or when he learns Torah.

This was a radical idea for me then. It struck me like a thunderbolt. I had never thought of Judaism in these terms.  For several years already I had been (or considered myself to be) Torah-observant. Yet I had compartmentalised my day-to-day living into Jewish and secular. My pursuit of a music degree with its accompanying analysis of scores and genres had nothing to do with mitsvot or my mission as a Jew. Or so I thought. Until I met that eloquent young scholar named Jonathan Sacks.

It has suddenly become a matter of great regret to me that I never told Rabbi Lord Sacks just how much his talk on that Shabbat so many decades ago had changed my thinking and, with it, my life.  Now I shall sadly not have the opportunity.

It was not long after that that his star rose meteorically – a doctorate in philosophy, an intensive semicha course at Jews’ College, a lectureship there followed by a principal-ship and a prize pulpit at Marble Arch ….and suddenly he was elected as successor to Lord Jakobovits ztl  as Chief Rabbi!  His calling to serve AngloJewry at the highest level had been realised. No-one who had known him even slightly was in the least surprised.

His was the voice we aspiring young rabbis looked forward to hearing at conferences. We were stimulated, electrified, never disappointed..

My second personal encounter with him revealed another characteristic that set him apart from most others. He was able to pinpoint others’ strengths and hone them to everyone’s best advantage. He sensed, perhaps better than I did myself, my love for liturgy, for words and for analysis of data, and he enabled me to combine these loves to help the community.

That is why while I was still an assistant minister in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, he wrote me a personal letter.  He had been appointed by Lord Jakobovits to oversee the production of a new Centenary Edition of the Singer’s Siddur. Consultative by nature, he sought to elicit a wide range of opinions on what should be included, excluded, re-translated, explicated, which rubrics to modify or expand. He wished me to be the one to collate all suggestions from across Anglo- and Commonwealth Jewish communities (I still recall receiving Rabbi Apple’s posted submission replete with a coveted Australian stamp, providing me with my first contact with Sydney Jewry!) I was to analyse the responses and submit a detailed report of the findings to Rabbi Sacks’ committee. The new Siddur incorporated many of the suggestions and included in its introduction a “tribute …to the Rev. Chaim Ingram who, in the exploratory stages, collated submissions from a wide section of the community”

My final up-close encounter with Rabbi Sacks prior to leaving my Leicester community for Sydney reminded me again how much I would miss his inspiring presence at (relatively) close quarters. This was at his installation as Chief Rabbi, held at St. John’s Wood Synagogue in 1991.  Again his address was memorable and I can still hear in my mind’s ear echoes of phrases from it in his unique, mellifluous, caressing tones.  How to be a passionate Jew in an age of affluence and how we seem to be so much better at being Jewish Jews when the chips are down.  One of his favourite themes which has also become one of mine

I remember well his last visit to Sydney and our rabbinic gathering with him in the home of Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence, then of Sydney’s Great Synagogue. He greeted me with outstretched arms and sparkling eyes like a long-lost bosom friend – but of course that was the way he greeted all his rabbinic colleagues.  I, in turn, handed him, one by one (as did some of my colleagues) purchased copies of his recent books for his autograph like a groupie, which in a sense I was! His brilliant public address at the Great that evening had even noted sceptics spellbound in awe.

He was a universalist, yet a passionate Zionist and patriot. He was an idealist, yet always pragmatic.  He was able to embrace wider Jewry, yet without compromising his Orthodoxy.  He elicited the admiration of the world, yet never failed to speak with an authentic Jewish voice.

I cannot begin to imagine how he has succeeded in composing cycle after cycle of profound and inspirational parasha essays year after year, all exploring a different dimension of the Torah text, all saying something entirely new and original.

I can best conclude this inadequate tribute by quoting from one of these many Covenant and Conversation essays of his on the week’s parasha which is quintessentially poignant at this time.

To place your life in G-D’s hands, to have faith that whatever happens to you happens for a reason, to know that you are part of a larger narrative, and to believe that others will continue what you began, is to achieve a satisfaction in life that cannot be destroyed by circumstance. Abraham and Sarah had that faith, and they were able to die with a sense of fulfilment …. To be happy does not mean that you have everything you want or everything you were promised. It means, simply, to have done what you were called on to do, to have made a beginning, and then to have passed on the baton to the next generation …..”The righteous even in death are considered as though they were still alive” (Berachot 18a) because the righteous leave a living trace in those who come after them.

Just yesterday, I had cause to refer to some notes I wrote several years ago for some students on basic Jewish concepts.  This is what I had written about Kiddush haShem:  It means sanctifying G-D’s name.   In an ultimate sense, being prepared to give up one’s life for G-D and Torah (e.g. Rabbi Akiva) In a ‘regular-life’ sense, acting in a way that brings credit to G-D, the Torah, the Jewish People and Israel (e.g. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks).

Yes. Rabbi Sacks’ life was a continual Kiddush haShem.  No-one can aspire to a greater epitaph.


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