Reading Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Reading Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Reading Rabbi Sacks

Perhaps the greatest rabbinic communicator of our era, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l remains one of the most popular Torah authors in the world today. Hundreds of thousands have devoured his books and essays. His books have been translated into a dozen languages. We know we enjoy reading Rabbi Sacks. The question is why.

There is no shortage of good answers. His ideas are scintillating, creative, and deep. His range of knowledge is breathtaking. His world-class talents as a spellbinding orator - not to mention his British accent - helped garner widespread interest in his writings. Rabbi Sacks’ unique standing as a global ambassador and public intellectual also helped him cultivate a massive following.

But there is more. A scholar might be brilliant but utterly unreadable. Many famous scholars, such as Immanuel Kant, were famously inscrutable. In fact, at the beginning of his career, Rabbi Sacks himself wrote ingenious, highly specialized academic articles, first on economics and later on topics such as the thought of Rabbi Soloveitchik. Yet over time, he made a point of developing his writing style, ultimately mastering the craft. Today, in large measure, Rabbi Sacks is read so widely precisely because of the brilliance with which he communicated his ideas.

How, then, did he package his ideas so effectively? In this small space I’d like to allow Rabbi Sacks to speak for himself. I will cite and briefly analyze one representative paragraph from his Covenant and Conversation to Sefer Devarim, which we recently began reading. The essay entitled “The Teacher as Hero” opens as follows:

“Imagine the following scenario. You are 119 years and 11 months old. The end of your life is in sight. Your hopes have received devastating blows. You have been told by God that you will not enter the land to which you have been leading your people for forty years. You have been repeatedly criticised by the people you have led. Your sister and brother, with whom you shared the burdens of leadership, have predeceased you. And you know that neither of your children, Gershom and Eliezer, will succeed you. Your life seems to be coming to a tragic end, your destination unreached, your aspirations unfulfilled. What do you do?”

This brief passage opens a window into three elements of Rabbi Sacks’ exquisite writing style.

First, Rabbi Sacks is highly engaging. He opens with a dramatic hook: someone is nearly on his deathbed. At the end of the paragraph, he poses a direct question for the reader’s consideration: “What do you do?” He uses the word “you” or “your” no less than 17 times in this paragraph alone, further engaging the reader by making the question personally relevant. He omits Moshe’s name, inviting the reader to imagine how she might respond if she were in the great prophet’s shoes.

Rabbi Sacks’ writing style is also refreshingly accessible. His sentences are short. He uses very few dependent clauses. There are just six commas in ten sentences. There are no colons or semicolons here or in any of his collected essays on Parashat Devarim. The paragraph contains one basic idea that can be summarized with ease. The word choice is impeccable. There is no jargon, cliches, or distracting, parenthetical asides. He avoids using extraneous words, even opting not to use the word “and” in the final clause of the second-to-last sentence of the paragraph. (“Your life seems to be coming to a tragic end, your destination unreached, your aspirations unfulfilled.) The paragraph is so well-trimmed that it almost reads more like an extended sentence than a paragraph.

But the paragraph is not just engaging and tidy; it is also exquisitely crafted. The opening sentence (“Imagine the following scenario”) and closing sentence (“What do you do?”) are brilliantly coupled. Each contains four words. The former invites the reader’s attention, the latter a response. The pairing continues with the second and third sentences (“You are 119 years and 11 months old. The end of your life is in sight”), which come full circle with the second-to-last sentence (“Your life seems to be coming to a tragic end, your destination unreached, your aspirations unfulfilled”).

The heart of the action lies in the middle five sentences, which describe Moshe’s plight. The first serves as a topic sentence for the subsequent lines: “Your hopes have received devastating blows.” The next four sentences enumerate those blows, which consist of Moshe enduring the ban on his entry to Israel, his repeated criticism at the Jews’ hands, the demise of his brother and sister, and the exclusion of his children from future leadership. Rabbi Sacks is careful not to add unnecessary modifiers to this list such as first, second, third, and fourth, which would weigh down the prose and make it feel more like a catalog than a narrative. He begins the final sentence reviewing Moshe’s woes with the simple word “and,” neatly demonstrating that this sentence concludes the middle section.

This brief paragraph, then, forms a chiasm in A-B-C-B-A structure:

A - Invitation to the reader

B - The setting: Moshe’s final month

C - Moshe’s woes

B - New appreciation of the setting: Moshe’s Challenge

C - More direct invitation: what would you do?

Nor is the lyricism limited to the paragraph structure. The repetition of “you” is more than an invitation. It is, arguably, a leit motif consistent with Rabbi Sacks’ notion that throughout Sefer Devarim, Moshe shifts the locus of responsibility from himself onto the people as he prepares them for life after his death. And Rabbi Sacks’ repeated use of the passive voice, which typically weakens otherwise strong prose, is deliberate: phrases such as “have received devastating blows” and “have been repeatedly criticised” underscore Moses’ sense of futility.

In just these ten short sentences, then, we gain a glimpse into Rabbi Sacks’ compelling writing style: engaging, plain-spoken, and lyrical. Small wonder his writing is read the world over.

But I believe this extends beyond Rabbi Sacks’ writing style. These three elements reflect three fundamental beliefs he maintained about Torah.

Relevance - The manner in which Rabbi Sacks writes, ensuring that his readers are engaged by a relevant question and take-home message, reflects his belief that Torah must speak to the needs of individuals and society. As he put it in the introduction to Covenant and Conversation: “Torah is a commentary on life, and life is a commentary on Torah. Together they constitute a conversation, each shedding light on the other.”

Accessibility - Rabbi Sacks insisted that Torah be accessible to the broadest audience possible. Particularly as he grew into a wider leadership position, he recognized the importance of reaching the broadest possible audience. He was a global philosopher who believed that Jews possess a unique message that must be communicated with humanity at-large. He eschewed labels he saw as narrow, such as Modern Orthodox. He embraced social media as a vehicle for reaching the widest possible audience. Within the Jewish community, he wrote wildly popular commentaries to ubiquitous works such as the Haggada, siddur, and Humash. This was all by design.

Elegance - Rabbi Sacks understood that even in an age of informality, Torah needed to be presented in a manner befitting its grandeur. This was certainly reflected in Rabbi Sacks’ regal comportment, but it was also something about which he wrote explicitly. As he put it, “Where the Greeks believed in the holiness of beauty, Jews believed in hadrat kodesh, the beauty of holiness. There is a place for the aesthetic in avodah. In the words of the Song at the Sea: zeh Keili ve-anvehu, ‘This is my God and I will beautify Him.’ For beauty inspires love, and from love flows the service of the heart” (Covenant and Conversation, Tetzaveh, 5772).

Certainly, these traits - relevance, accessibility, and elegance - characterize Rabbi Sacks as a writer and teacher, and those of us who write and teach would do well to adapt them for our own purposes.

More than that, they embody a triad of values that can inspire our own approach to Torah study and personal growth. Torah is relevant. It always has something to say to our lives. Torah is accessible. While at first it may seem arduous and difficult to master, ultimately lo bashayim hi, it is not in the heavens. It is accessible to all. And Torah is elegant. Like an elegant mathematical equation, Torah has its own exquisite beauty that is revealed when we delve into its depths.

Rabbi Sacks was not only a brilliant thinker and orator but also a magnificent composer of prose. By appreciating his craftsmanship, we can enjoy Rabbi Sacks’ divrei Torah on a deeper level and, better, incorporate their underlying motifs into our own everyday lives.

Published in The Jewish Press,