Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and… My Mother

 In this particularly difficult era in both Jewish and World History, many of us are struggling with questions of emuna and bitachon, faith and trust. In an unprecedented period that is both perplexing and challenging, we try to maintain some equilibrium, perhaps even some optimism. But it is far from easy.  With a seemingly unrelentless procession of unfathomable or tragic events, each following all too quickly on the heels of the last, we feel totally knocked about and wonder with trepidation, “What’s next?”

            Some of us search our bookshelves or bookstores for works of inspiration on maintaining our faith and confidence in God. We attend classes, participate in discussions, and search out leadership of all kinds to guide us, enlighten us, and ease our sense of confusion, consternation, and angst.   

            Recently, I have (re) discovered two role models, seemingly as different one from the other as possible. They offer me a rare and deep insight into what true emuna should look like. They are Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, and my dear mother, a”h.

            Along with Jews and non-Jews alike, worldwide, I have long admired, respected, and learned from the words of Rabbi Sacks. I read his writings on the weekly Torah portion each Shabbat and have several others of his books. His great wisdom and learning, his deep love for Torah, Israel and the Jewish people, along with his astonishing output of books, articles and videos have impacted greatly on the Jewish world and even, to an extent, on the non-Jewish world.

            On the other hand, my mother, Chana, wrote no books, gave no public speeches, and was known mostly to her beloved family and cherished friends. She was always a role model for her three children in her seemingly simple but pure faith and her cheerful optimism despite a life that posed many challenges, including the accidental death of a young daughter.  But, she did so in such a quiet and unassuming way that I don’t think that her children were fully aware of the depth of her religious faith and constancy.

            It would never have occurred to me that there might be an essential similarity between Rabbi Sacks and my mother until a few days ago when I discovered a commonality they shared.

            In an article in Tablet Magazine from 2013 about Rabbi Sacks, on the occasion of his stepping down from his 22 year position as Chief Rabbi of England, the author writes the following:

     “Though he seldom mentions it, Sacks battled cancer twice, once in his 30s, and later in his50s. Yet unlike many other rabbis and scholars of religion, from Rabbi David Wolpe to James Kugel, who incorporated their bouts with cancer into their theological reflections, Sacks makes no reference to it in his voluminous output. I asked why.

     ‘It’s very simple,’ he said. ‘I saw my late father in his 80s go through four, five major operations… Now, my late father, alav ha-shalom, didn’t have much Jewish education, but he had enormous emunah [faith],’ Sacks continued. ‘I used to watch him saying Tehillim in the hospital, and I could see him getting stronger. It seemed to me that his mental attitude was ‘I’m leaving this to Hashem. If he sees that it’s time for me to go, then it’s time for me to go. And if he still needs me to do things here, he’ll look after me.’ And I adopted exactly that attitude.’

     ‘So, on both occasions I felt, if this is the time Hashem needs me up there, thank you very much indeed for my time down here; I’ve enjoyed every day and feel very blessed. And if he wants me to stay and there’s still work for me to do, then he is going to be part of the refu’ah [healing] and I put my trust in him. So, there was no test of faith at any point (emphasis, mine)—just these simple moments at which to say, ‘b’yado afkid ruchi’ [‘In his hand, I place my soul’]. That was my thought. And since we say that every day in Adon Olam, I didn’t feel the need to write a book about it. It was for me not a theological dilemma at all. I had faith, said Sacks, full stop.’” (emphasis, mine)

      I found this piece to be very moving and shared it with others. When I spoke of it with my sister, she told me that it reminded her of something else.  Our mother suffered from increasing levels of dementia during the last few years of her life. By the end, she was incapable of doing anything for herself, recognized none of us, and all her talk was generally some sort of seemingly meaningless babble.

            There was, however, one exception in terms of her speech. My sister who lived in the apartment above the one where my parents were living, had installed a monitor so that she could hear my parents in case of need. Therefore, they would hear my mother, sometimes for long periods of time, repeating the last stanza of Adon Olam:

“B’yado afkid ruchi
b’et ishan v’a’irah.
V’im ruchi g’viyati,

(In His hand I place my soul,
in the time of sleep and awakening,
Even if my spirit leaves,
G-d is with me, I shall not fear).”

She would repeat the words over and over again in her European-accented and Yiddishized Hebrew. It began to drive my sister and family a bit crazy, so they would often turn down the volume.  

When my sister reminisced about this, one detail stood out so boldly and beautifully. The same words that Rabbi Sacks evoked as the essential expression of his deep emuna, are the ones that expressed something very meaningful and obviously deeply-imbedded within my mother’s subconscious. Or, in other words, in her soul.

Simple faith is not, necessarily, for the simple. The same Hebrew word, tam, which appears as one of the Four Sons in the Passover haggada, and is usually translated as “simple” can also mean “pure” and “perfect.” It is used that way in describing Jacob, for example. In the Torah we are told, as a people, to be “tamim,”

which clearly refers to purity and perfection as qualities to strive towards.

            Rabbi Sacks was obviously no simpleton. Neither, for that matter, was my mother. But they both apparently understood the same foundational truth. Placing our trust in God, no matter what, even in facing death, is the essence of faith. Full stop.

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