OPINION: What would Rabbi Sacks be saying about 7 October?

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OPINION: What would Rabbi Sacks be saying about 7 October?

He would be pleading with us not to give up hope, but to be active, wherever we are, however we can, to protect our ancient homeland and the world’s only Jewish state, writes Dan Sacker

Former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks. Credit: Blake-Ezra Photography
Former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks. Credit: Blake-Ezra Photography

As a student in Cambridge in the summer of 1967, with the Holocaust still casting a dark shadow over the world, a young Jonathan Sacks became suddenly aware that a second tragedy might be about to overcome the Jewish people.

Writing in his book A Letter in the Scroll (published as Radical Then, Radical Now in the UK), he recalled how, despite those difficult days as the armies of the Arab world amassed on Israel’s borders, “extraordinary things began to happen.”

Jews, especially those with little previous affiliation, suddenly became visible. They came to the synagogue to pray. They collected money. “Everyone,” he writes, “wanted to help in some way, to express their solidarity, their identification with Israel’s fate… as if it were their own lives that were at stake.”

He added that:“Collectively the Jewish people had looked in the mirror and said, We are still Jews. And by that they meant more than a private declaration of faith, “religion” in the conventional sense of the word. It meant that they felt part of a people, involved in its fate, implicated in its destiny, caught up in its tragedy, exhilarated by its survival. I had felt it. So had every other Jew I knew.”

Why was this so, Rabbi Sacks wondered? Israel was a country two thousand miles away, one he had visited but – at that time – had no intention to live in. And yet he felt its danger as if it was his own. “It was then,” he wrote, “that I knew that being Jewish was not something private and personal but something collective and historical. It meant being part of an extended family, many of whose members I did not know, but to whom I nonetheless felt connected by bonds of kinship and responsibility.”

Those words, powerful then, could have been written now. The collective identity of the Jewish people has always been based on two covenants: a covenant of faith and a covenant of fate. However we choose to practice our Judaism – or if we choose not to practice it at all – we are nonetheless bound together – am echad b’lev echad, one people with one heart.

Dan Sacker

We are bound together by our faith in God and our determination to care for each other. In Israel, left and right, old and young, religious and secular, have scrambled to assist one another. Israelis, called up for reserve duty, have returned home from around the world. Families, evacuated from southern Israel, have been welcomed with open arms all over the country. In the Diaspora, Jewish communities have raised funds, and gathered in support and prayer for the State and the people of Israel. Our unity has overcome our divisions.

We are also bound together in our fear as we see how sparks that fly in the Middle East can ignite global fires of hate around the world. Anti-Israel protests have become anti-Jew rallies. The chant of “Free, free Palestine / From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and mobs screaming for “Intifada” have been heard in cities and university campuses worldwide. Diaspora Jews are, once again, considering whether they have a long-term future in their countries.

Since the barbaric terrorist attacks and massacre by Hamas on 7th October, I have longed to know what Rabbi Sacks would say about the current situation. As we approach the third anniversary of his passing (his yahrzeit is this Friday night / Shabbat), I know I’m not the only one. Like so many, I miss his wisdom, his gravitas, and his ability to make some sense of the incomprehensible, of helping us chart a way forward, of giving us rays of light and hope amidst the darkness.

Rabbi Sacks famously distinguished the words ‘optimism’ and ‘hope’. He once wrote:

“One of the most important distinctions I have learned in the course of reflecting on Jewish history is the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope. Knowing what we do of our past, no Jew can be an optimist. But Jews have never – despite a history of sometimes awesome suffering – given up hope.”

That message of the power of hope is, I believe, what Rabbi Sacks would have been saying to us if he was still alive. Just like in 1967, he would have seen great strength in the unity of the Jewish people and taken great inspiration from it. He would be imploring us to fight against antisemitism and for our right to live proudly as Jews.

He would be urging us to donate our resources to the Israeli people, and our time to fight the misinformation campaign in the media and online. He would be pleading with us not to give up hope, but to be active, wherever we are, however we can, to protect our ancient homeland and the world’s only Jewish state. Israel is, to borrow the title of one of his books (and the theme of this year’s Communities in Conversation project to mark Rabbi Sacks’ yahrzeit), “The Home We Build Together.”

Now it is the home we need to defend together.

Reflecting on that summer of 1967, Rabbi Sacks noted that: “What I discovered in those emotional days – perhaps what each of us discovers when Jewish identity takes us by surprise – is that this covenant is still alive. It still had the power to move and transform me and my contemporaries – more power, perhaps, than any of us had suspected until then.” How true that remains.

Our covenant with God, to each other, and to our land remains unbroken, a source of power our enemies fail to appreciate that will ultimately lead to their defeat. Yes, there is hard work to do and, tragically, inevitable sacrifices to come.

Though Rabbi Sacks is no longer with us, the words he left, the wisdom he taught, and the belief he inspired, continue to sustain us, even in these most trying times.

Od lo avda tikvateinu, our hope is not yet lost. There is no other way.

  • Dan Sacker worked with Rabbi Sacks from 2011 until his passing on 7th November 2020, before helping to establish the Rabbi Sacks Legacy (www.RabbiSacks.org). He now works as a Director at Milltown Partners, a global strategic communications and advisory firm.
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