From the Pulpit: A lesson I learned from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

By Rabbi Menachem M. Blum

I pen these lines as the Jewish world mourns the passing of former chief rabbi of the U.K., Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks Z”L. A giant in our times, a rabbi of rabbis, a brilliant writer and a master orator who was a great inspiration to many, and to me personally. Rabbi Sacks was the true meaning of being “a light unto the nations.” He was a great ambassador for the Jewish people to the world, as well as a global voice of reason and motivation. He was a man of great humility who had a way with words to reach out and touch the souls of his fellow human beings. I know that his writings and videos will continue to inspire us for many years to come.

I had the great privilege of meeting with Rabbi Sacks a couple of years ago in Toronto. Rabbi Sacks was there for a speaking engagement and I was invited to participate in an exclusive meeting that was organized for a delegation of Jewish leaders from our Ottawa Jewish community. Part of our discussion dealt with the future of world Jewry and Jewish continuity. I asked Rabbi Sacks to share with us his opinion as to what is the key ingredient to ensuring that young families stay engaged in Jewish life beyond their years of affiliation with a Hebrew school and bar/bat mitzvah celebrations. His answer was two words: “Daily rituals.” He explained that when young families will incorporate daily Jewish rituals in their homes and in their lifestyle, it will create a structure for their Jewish identity and Jewish pride to flourish.

He shared with us that most great philosophers, composers, artists and writers had daily rituals that structured their day. It is this structure that allowed their creativity to thrive. For example, Beethoven started every day with a cup of coffee. Each cup had to be made with exactly sixty beans, which he counted out every single day. He would then sit at his desk and compose until 2 pm. He would then take a long walk, taking with him a pencil and some sheets of music paper to record any ideas that came to him on the way. Each night after supper he would have a beer, smoke a pipe, and go to sleep early. It was these daily rituals that he had in his life that created a structure for his creative mind to create his wonderful music.

Rabbi Sacks drew an analogy from physical fitness. A person cannot wake up one day and decide to go to the gym and work out for a few hours and expect to see results. In fact, it will be a painful experience. Exercise has to be done regularly and gradually so that core muscles can be strengthened and physical fitness achieved. Similarly, he explained, exercising our Jewish muscles once a year on the High Holidays or in preparation for a Jewish lifecycle event will not build Jewish stamina. We need to exercise our Jewish core muscles regularly through the incorporation of daily rituals in our lives.

Incorporating daily Jewish rituals in our lives has two benefits. First, it will create the structure for our creative Jewish soul to express itself. In addition, these behaviours will change us. Isn’t it what behavioural therapy is about? It is built on the idea that all behaviours are learned and that unhealthy behaviours can be changed.

As we continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and we are spending more time at home with our families, let’s take Rabbi Sacks’ advice to heart and incorporate some daily Jewish rituals in our lives. May his memory be a blessing for his family, for our people and for humanity as a whole.