Seven Lessons in the Leadership of Rabbi Sacks z'l
Updated: Jun 27
Reflecting on the Torah of his Life by Benji Levy
Rabbi Sacks talks about three types of Torah:
The Torah we learn from books. He authored around three dozen that we continue to learn from, both original thought and unpacking central texts from the siddur to the Torah itself.
The Torah we learn from a teacher. He delivered thousands of lessons as classes, podcasts, animations and videos that we continue to learn from.
The Torah we learn from life. The way he lived brought together his erudite command of the written and oral word, forming his tremendous leadership that can only be truly discovered in retrospect now that his physical presence in this world has come to an end.
Rabbi Sacks said that it was in leadership challenges that he learnt the third type of Torah and so as his life has come to an end, we can bring all three of his conceptions of Torah together and focus on the greatest work he just completed – his magnum opus – his life. Like most areas, we need not presume what his view may have been on leadership as he spelled it out for us. First published in the Jewish Chronicle and Jerusalem Post and later reworked for his Afterword of Lessons in Leadership, Rabbi Sacks outlines what he calls ‘Seven Principles of Jewish Leadership’ which I will quote and revisit from this new vantage point.
1) Leadership is Service
The achievements of Moses were vast and transformational, from leading the Exodus from Egypt to facilitating the revelation. He received many titles throughout the ages, from the greatest prophet to the teacher par excellence. Yet Rabbi Sacks highlights only one label as his ‘highest accolade’, namely: ‘a servant of the Lord.’ Here Rabbi Sacks is making a significant judgment call and revealing the value he sees as most important, ‘a leader does not stand above the people. He serves the people and serves God.’ He roots the well-known modern idea of ‘servant leadership’ as actually having its origins in the Torah and this was the modus operandi of Rabbi Sacks himself.
I had the honor of accompanying Rabbi Sacks when he visited Australia and I was surprised when in multiple synagogues he often sat among us rather than in the special area reserved for the rabbi. Like Moses, his humility was real. He truly saw himself as a mere messenger of a greater message. This was not false humility – he recognized that he was playing a crucial role, but since everyone has a crucial role to play, he saw himself as no different. We all have the opportunity to serve a cause, each in our own way and ‘it is the cause we dedicate ourselves to and the people we serve that lift us, not our own high estimate of ourselves.’ He quoted C.S. Lewis who defined humility not as thinking less of yourself but as thinking of yourself less. Rabbi Sacks was so occupied with thinking about others that he thought of himself less. And through this he was a true servant of the Lord and a servant of the people.
2) Leadership begins by taking responsibility
Weaving this message throughout his teachings, and allowing it to animate the experience of learning Torah and the journey of prayer through his Koren commentaries, Rabbi Sacks seemed obsessed with taking responsibility, ‘when we see something wrong, we can complain or we can act. Complaining does not change the world. Acting does.’ His theology was one of practice, life lived in the active not passive mode and so he preempted opportunities to help others before they asked. He provided answers to questions before they were being raised, dealt with issues before they bubbled to the surface, and offered cures before the ails of society were beyond repair.
Rabbi Sacks wrote that ‘we are as great as the challenges we have the courage to undertake.’ He did not shy away from dealing with the issues of the day, openly defending Israel’s right to defend herself and calling out antisemitism for what it is, fighting those that hated any group, broadening his defense of the defenseless, and indeed calling on all of humanity to make space for one another. He publicly debated some of his greatest philosophical detractors like Richard Dawkins and took on those that presented a real danger like Prime Ministerial candidate, Jeremy Corbyn (who he said had ‘given support to racists, terrorists and dealers of hate’). He criticized ‘cancel culture’ and called on our conscience to consider the effects of social media while we were beginning to live through it, he called out identity politics and advocated for a greater sense of community in a ‘selfie generation.’
In short, Rabbis Sacks’ responsibility lay in his ability to respond – something he did with distinction.
3) Leadership is vision-driven
Influencers usually have a platform such as heading a large institution, holding a significant office, leading a company or representing an organization. The greater the platform, the louder the voice. Yet, in the last years of Rabbi Sacks’ life – by far his most influential – he had none of that. I know of no Jewish leader today that achieved close to what he did regarding broad authority. Part of what enlivened all he did was his tremendous vision, his capacity to invite others to share that vision and of course, to deliver. As he put it, ‘it is the vision that matters, not the office, the power, the status, or the authority. Leaders are led by their vision of the future, and it is this that inspires others.’
Vision is what motivates us to move forward – the vision of leaving Egypt, of receiving the Torah, of moving to Israel, of creating a just society, of becoming a light unto the nations and the list goes on. From our birth as a nation to our rebirth in our nation-state, our historic perspective always beckons us one step further because ‘history does not give rise to hope; hope gives rise to history.’ Rabbi Sacks was an agent of hope and the vision he sketched will take lifetimes to fulfil.
4) The highest form of leadership is teaching
Rabbi Sacks was many things. He was a philosopher, political scientist, historian, ethicist, sociologist and so much more, but he was one thing more than anything else. A teacher.
Like most of the quotes I have shared, Rabbi Sacks could have been talking about himself when he said, ‘the great leaders are educators, teaching people to understand the meaning of their time.’ Every encounter with Rabbi Sacks was a lesson, every phrase a teaching, every act a tutorial. He was the ultimate ‘text-person.’
He revered libraries, appreciating Gladstone who had a library of more than thirty thousand books and David Ben Gurion whose house in Tel Aviv ‘was less a home than a library.’ He admired writers such as Churchill who wrote around fifty books and won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He always said that in order to teach, you need to learn. And boy did he learn. While he spent formal time in Yeshiva, it was not nearly as much as most rabbinic scholars, perhaps because the Torah that he would develop needed to be self-taught through the harmonization of so many disparate worlds and ideas.
My final meaningful encounter with Rabbi Sacks took place for around two hours in his home around a year before he passed away. We began in his study, surrounded by books, and then moved to his living room, surrounded by more books. And I thought to myself that the true library was in his mind and his capacity to catalogue, categorize and curate the different ideas was part of his genius. Now his own books adorn the digital and physical shelves of millions of libraries, homes, and websites alike, continuing to teach us and provide companionship.
The title that the Tanach gave Moses eighteen times was ‘a servant of the Lord’, however, to his people, to this day and for all eternity, he is known as Moshe Rabeinu – Moses our teacher. Rabbi Sacks will always be known as the same.
5) A leader must have faith in the people he or she leads
There is a famous Talmudic debate regarding whether the arrival of the Messiah will be precipitated by teshuva (the repentance of the Jewish people) or if the coming of the Messiah causes the Jewish people to do teshuva. Maimonides adjudged that ‘the Jewish people will only be redeemed if they do teshuva.’ However if Maimonides believes that the coming of the Messiah is contingent upon the teshuva of the Jewish people, how can he write and how can we declare that we believe that the Messiah will come (as we do, for example, in the Thirteen Principles of Faith)? Looking around the world today, this seems nearly impossible – the people seem too far gone and only the Messiah can redeem us.
Rabbi Soloveitchik, who Rabbi Sacks called: ‘the outstanding Jewish mind of the age,’ shed light on this question. Since the coming of the Messiah is predicated on the teshuva of the Jewish people, one cannot truly believe in the power of God to bring the Messiah unless one truly believes in the power of the Jewish people to return. Rabbi Sacks lived this message. To paraphrase him, who would have thought that a group of slaves, escaping from the tyranny of Egypt in the barren desert over 2000 years ago, could share a message that would transform the world’s moral landscape? More recently, who would have thought, that a handful of survivors, after staring eyeball to eyeball with the angel of death in Auschwitz, would build and rebuild our flourishing homeland. These people, the Jewish people, have weathered some of the greatest storms known to any nation. History thus teaches that while it may seem illogical to believe in the power of a people – we can and we must believe in this people – our people! As Rabbi Sacks put it, ‘faith is the defeat of probability by possibility.’
When he stood down as the official Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, he became simply known as ‘Chief Rabbi’ or to some of his students affectionally as ‘The Chief’. The Chief of what, one may ask? It seems he was the closest one came in our time to serve world Jewry. He became the leader of the people that he believed in and indeed, with a deep appreciation of the history of the Jewish people, he believed in all of us more than we often believe in ourselves.
6) Leaders need a sense of timing and pace
When Moses asked God to choose his successor, he stated that such a person should ‘go out before them and come in before them, lead them out and bring them in.’ Rabbi Sacks highlighted the apparent repetition as bringing our attention to a fundamental truth about leadership. While one should lead from the front, one should not go so far ahead that when one turns around, the people are too far behind.
Rabbi Sacks pushed – but never too much. And when he did, he waited for us patiently to catch up. I have read avid tributes from atheists and theists, reform and ultra-orthodox leaders alike and while some of his views were not shared by everyone, he managed to never alienate his audience entirely. One example was his rewriting of the Dignity of Difference which, he said was ‘an incredibly easy thing to do.’ He called the revisions ‘stylistic, not substantive’ as he knew how to adapt his content to the audience in a way that ensured that the substance of his message could be heard by all audiences.
Again, he fulfilled his own words: ‘leadership involves a delicate balance between impatience and patience. Go too fast and people resist. Go too slow and they become complacent. Transformation takes time, often more than a single generation.’ Clearly, his influence has transformed the Jewish world profoundly, but we are yet to see the true transformation he achieved, something the generations to come can only look forward to.
7) We are all summoned to the task
It is this idea that Rabbi Sacks called ‘probably the deepest Jewish truth of all.’ While exceedingly humble, Rabbi Sacks was acutely aware of the task to which he was summoned. He treated it with absolute sanctity and it was his guiding principle. His time was precious and he always stayed on task. You will hear countless stories of investment in people’s life challenges and may say this was a distraction, but it was a conscious choice that he saw as part of his task.
I remember when we were planning a historic event at Moriah College in Sydney Australia, there was only one person that could deliver the message that needed to be heard – Rabbi Sacks. He candidly shared that he had to complete his translation of the Torah. If he were to visit Australia it would take out over a week from this task, among others and he had to prioritize. People in the community used significant sway, they were willing to invest significant dollars but nothing would distract him. While selfishly disappointed, we knew that he was right and indeed the first book that will come out posthumously will include this translation in the tremendous Koren Tanach.
His whole life existed for his task. While he may have been one of the most sophisticated thinkers of our time, he lived with simple faith. This was his third fight with cancer. Reflecting on the first two, he shared:
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—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, full stop.
Many of us would do anything for Rabbi Sacks and in a stroke of genius, here he imparted yet another gift: the only way his task will be fulfilled is if we fulfil our own. Now it is onto the next generation and ‘the Jewish people right now needs leaders, people unafraid to face the challenges of today and build for tomorrow instead of, as so often happens, fighting the battles of yesterday.’
Rabbi Sacks argued that ‘we are all called on to be leaders within our sphere of influence, be it the family, the community, at work, among colleagues, or in play among teammates.’ In this sense, he is inviting everyone to shoulder the responsibility of these leadership lessons in their own life. After seeing so many well-known and less known leaders emerge in sharing how he inspired them, it is clear that he succeeded in elevating others to make this choice. He often said that: ‘good leaders create followers, great leaders create leaders.’
May the blessings of one of contemporary Judaism’s greatest leaders stay strong in our memory and may his memory be a blessing. Yehi Zichro Baruch