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Rabbi Sacks, the Snow, and Our Common Humanity

As the election dust settles and the snow falls, some thoughts on something deeper than our many differences - a witness born most eloquently by the remarkable and recently deceased Rabbi Sacks.

Sometimes weather matches the mood of the day. While a winter storm softly drops several inches of snow outside my home on November 8, I encounter in my inbox the unexpected news of the death of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Suddenly my warm and well-lit house feels colder and dimmer.

I did not have to meet this prolific religious genius to be educated by his mind.

This is what happens in the inner recesses of our souls when people we admire and love leave us.

I never met Rabbi Sacks, who died from cancer on November 7 at age 72. But thanks to the gifts of his books, op-eds, lectures, speeches, and interviews, I did not have to meet this prolific religious genius to be educated by his mind, inspired by his faith, and lifted by his wit.

Rabbi Sacks was a graceful, winsome, even humorous ambassador for the importance of faith in God and respect for our many differences. Once, while accepting an award for his defense of religious freedom, he told the story of attending a soccer game in the early 1990s with George Carey, the newly installed Archbishop of Canterbury. Both Rabbi Sacks and the archbishop, it turned out, were fans of Arsenal, who that night was playing Manchester United.

“They had the public address system announce that, ‘Tonight we have with us the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi [of the United Kingdom],’” he said. “And you could hear the buzz go around the ground that whichever way you played this particular theological wager, one way or another, that night, Arsenal had friends in high places. They couldn’t possibly lose. That night, Arsenal went down to their worst home defeat in sixty-three years.”

As Rabbi Sacks tells the story, a journalist with a national British newspaper mused the next day about what the loss said about the existence of God. If the support of the archbishop and the chief rabbi couldn’t bring about a victory for Arsenal, then what could? 

“The next day, they carried my reply, which said, ‘It proves that God exists. It’s just that he supports Manchester United,’” Rabbi Sacks said.

He then drew from this lighthearted story a profound insight: “What if God is not only on my side, but also on the other side? What if God cares about the game, not just the team?” In other words, he said, “Our common humanity precedes our religious differences.”

On another occasion, Rabbi Sacks noted one important way to honor this common humanity while staying true to our beliefs.

“How do you get from intense religious faith to liberty of conscience, doctrine of toleration and human rights?” he asked. “The answer is, it is a very short step from saying ‘My faith is the most important thing there is, therefore everyone must share my faith,’ to ‘since faith is the most important thing there is, everyone should be free to pursue his or her own faith.’ It is one small step” (emphasis added).

My soul senses a message from the rabbi in the snow covering my yard.

These ideas are delicious to me—perhaps more so because of the helpful tension they add to my own beliefs as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Like some other churches in the world, the Latter-day Saints believe they belong to the true church. And yet we also believe, as our founder Joseph Smith taught, that we cannot become pure Latter-day Saints if we do not “get all the good in the world,” regardless of its source. “When we see virtuous qualities in men,” Joseph said, “we should always acknowledge them, let their understanding be what it may in relation to creeds and doctrine. For all men are, or ought to be free; possessing unalienable rights, and the high, and noble qualifications of the laws of nature and of self-preservation; to think, and act, and say as they please; while they maintain a due respect to the rights and privileges of all other creatures; infringing upon none. This doctrine I do most heartily subscribe to, and practice.”

It isn’t hard to imagine Joseph Smith and Rabbi Sacks striking hands in heaven.

With these thoughts warming me, my eyes turn back to the window to watch the snow fall. Instead of cold and dark, I feel warmth and light. My soul senses a message from the rabbi in the snow covering my yard. Snow, the great lawn equalizer. It’s interesting, isn’t it? Some neighbors of mine maintain beautiful lawns. Their grass is a dark, luscious green, watered thoroughly by expensive sprinkler systems. Their landscaping is immaculate. But when the snow comes, everyone’s lawn—even my parched, yellow quarter acre—looks essentially the same. 

Our differences are real. Our gifts vary. Our understandings are imperfect. But the snow reminds us that something precedes all of that. As Rabbi Sacks would say, “our common humanity precedes our religious differences” and clearly, our political differences too. 

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Rabbi Sacks—a man who wrote more than 30 books—is still sending out prophetic missives from his well-deserved resting place in the heavens above.

About the author

Samuel B. Hislop

Samuel B. Hislop is a writer in Utah.
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