Opinion: Rabbi Sacks’ powerful legacy could not be more relevant for young people

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Opinion: Rabbi Sacks’ powerful legacy could not be more relevant for young people

Reflecting on today's selfie-culture, the incoming UK Director of Jewish Education at the The Rabbi Sacks Legacy highlights the wisdom of the former Chief Rabbi: that Jewish life is about making a positive contribution to the lives of others

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaks at TED2017 - The Future You, April 24-28, 2017, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaks at TED2017 - The Future You, April 24-28, 2017, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Shavuot 2013 marked a moment of anticipation at the Independent Jewish Day School, which was buzzing with excitement as we eagerly awaited the arrival of the then Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, for our annual Tikkun Leil Shavuot learning programme.

The topic for the evening was “Do mitzvot (Torah commandments) require kavanah (intention)”?

Images of Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks.

Pupils had prepared presentations on various mitzvot, debating whether they could be fulfilled without the appropriate kavanah. Their voices trembled with nervousness and excitement as they presented their topic in the presence of Rabbi Sacks. We debated whether one can fulfil a mitzvah by accidentally sitting in the sukkah during Sukkot, or unintentionally eating matzah on Seder night. Some argued that the action was done so the mitzvah is fulfilled. Others argued that an inadvertent action is worthless.

The pupils’ faces beamed with pride as Rabbi Sacks listened attentively to their presentations and participated in the debate. By the end of the evening, we expected Rabbi Sacks to “answer” the question and bring our debate to a close. Rabbi Sacks did the absolute opposite. He left us pondering another question: “What is the purpose of a mitzvah?”

Rabbi Sacks went on the explain. Not all mitzvot are enjoyable. The opportunity to fulfil a mitzvah is the opportunity to come closer to God and develop a sense of purpose in life. It is the outcome of the action which determines whether it can be considered a sanctified mitzvah.

“Every mitzvah is a window in the wall separating us from God. Each mitzvah lets God’s light flow into the world” (Rabbi Sacks, Ten Days, Ten Ways).

Rabbi Cobi Ebrahimoff

The idea of a simple Jew allowing God’s light to flow into this world is revolutionary. Coming close to God is not a concept reserved for distinguished, righteous individuals. Each and every Jew, with no exceptions, has the opportunity to connect to God and seek purpose. It is that sense of purpose which drives us to fight injustice and encourages us to maximise our unique contribution to society.

A deep sense of purpose instills us with the confidence and capacity to defend and uphold our cherished Jewish values. Our purpose in this world brings us to the realisation that our Jewish heritage is not an additional burden or liability, it is our greatest opportunity.

Social media continues to develop rapidly. The various platforms provide endless entertainment fuelled by a persistent need for young people to tell the world about themselves. Constantly focusing on one’s perceived image and status is a major distraction that frequently leads to negative consequences. Parents and educators rightly respond by limiting the use of smartphones and installing powerful filters to protect young people from harm. However, no matter how powerful the filter may be, social media remains a dominant part of teens’ lives.

I have personally devoted a considerable amount of time and effort in attempts to create a Jewish equivalent to the instant gratification available on social media platforms. I have come to realise that Judaism is not expected to compete with social media as it offers a very different sense of satisfaction. Most social media platforms encourage self-centred behaviours. Jewish life, by contrast, is about making a positive contribution to the lives of others. Highlighting the risks and dangers of social media is essential, but there is also an opportunity to highlight the essence of Jewish values and tremendous satisfaction in Jewish life.

“The ‘selfie’ culture is harming us… Hyper-individualism has had its day. We need a new code of shared responsibility for the common good” (Rabbi Sacks, The Sunday Telegraph, 5th November 2017).

Sadly, the next generation of British Jews will not have the opportunity to engage with Rabbi Sacks in person. However, Rabbi Sacks left us a remarkable legacy, and it is incumbent upon us to expose young people to his teachings. The profound and powerful message of Rabbi Sacks could not be more relevant nowadays for young people: Your purpose is unique, your mission in this world is exclusive, and your personal talents and abilities can change the world for the better. Your contribution to the world is like no other.

  • Rabbi Cobi Ebrahimoff assumes the role of UK Director of Education at The Rabbi Sacks Legacy in September.
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