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What I Learned from a Giant

Thursday, 12 November, 2020 - 11:34 pm


WHAT I LEARNED FROM A GIANT a personal tribute to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks OBM

We have lost a true giant of the spirit. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks passed away last Shabbos, aged 72. He was one of the most eloquent and profound thinkers of our times, whose sphere of influence reached far beyond the Jewish world. He had the unique ability to bridge what seem like opposing ideas: faith and reason, morality and modernity, the Torah's message to the Jewish people and its universal message to all peoples. His passionate voice will be missed. 

I was fortunate to meet him on a few occasions. I'd like to share one exchange I had with him, unremarkable in many ways and yet so powerful.

It was on the side of a rabbinical conference he was addressing, during his visit to Australia in 2006. I caught him alone in the hallway, and grabbed the opportunity to ask a few questions. 

In the 22 years he served as Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, he authored some 25 books, wrote countless articles and essays and speeches, all while keeping up with the never-ending communal demands of his role. Being myself a young rabbi of a small community doing a little bit of writing, I was astounded at his prolific output. I wanted to know his secret. 

So I asked him: How do you find the time to write so much and yet maintain your many other duties?

He stopped for a moment and looked down to floor, tightening his eyebrows and scrunching his mouth up in a pondering pose. Only after thinking for what seemed like quite a while, Rabbi Sacks answered:

"Discipline. It takes discipline to write. Figure out which time of day you are most productive. Some find they work best first thing in the morning, others are night people. But whatever time it is, set it aside to write with focus. Inspiration comes with disciplined work." 

I liked his answer. Too often we wait idly for inspiration to just hit us. That's a huge waste of time. Consistent and focused effort will invite inspiration. Don't wait until you are in the mood. Get to work. I'd be better off if I listened to that advice more often.

But quite apart from Rabbi Sacks' words, I was taken by something else: the way he stopped to think before he spoke. I could almost hear his brain ticking. My question was not such a tough one. But he was preparing a considered response.

I felt privileged to stand silently in the presence of this giant of a mind at work. I had read the writings of Rabbi Sacks the author. I had heard the lectures of Rabbi Sacks the orator. But now I was witnessing with my own eyes Rabbi Sacks the thinker. 

Those moments impacted me as much as the words that followed.  In our superficial and frenetic world, the ability to concentrate our thoughts is almost a lost art. I have learned much from Rabbi Sacks. But I will forever be grateful for what I learned from him first hand -  that inspiration comes on the back of discipline, and that you are never too smart to think.

Good Shabbos,
Rabbi Moss

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