We have lost so much in the past year.
We have lost many precious souls, gone too soon because of a worldwide pandemic.
We have lost faith in humanity, our misguided belief that we completely control our own destiny.
And we have lost respect for people who, when the hour called, failed to provide the leadership that was needed. People revered as heroes who, unfortunately, did not display heroism.
Right next to my desk, I have two shelves of books which I have dubbed “The Heroes’ Bookshelf.” On this shelf are volumes written by authors who are not merely scholars, but the exemplars of life and behavior whom I wish I could emulate. These authors are my personal heroes.
On May 31, one of those heroes, Rabbi Norman Lamm zt”l, left this world. On August 7, another of those heroes, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz zt”l, left this world. And yesterday, the hero whose scholarship had the greatest impact on me, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l, left this world.
Unlike so many others, these heroes met the challenges of their time and set examples we would do well to follow. These are the real heroes, the people who gave us faith in humanity, the individuals who demonstrated what a human being could become and can represent. Heroes who succeeded, heroes whose heroism was never diminished.
I feel a sense of emptiness looking at these two shelves, realizing that in less than half a year, these three heroes have left our world. I ask who will replace them, but know that the answer is… no one. They are irreplaceable. The libraries of books that will not be written… the leadership that will be lacking… the human goodness that will be missed… no, they can never be replaced.
But we can and must imitate them. Their loss leaves a void; but each of them, through their teaching and personal example, told us that we have a role to play in creating the world anew. Their likes will not be seen again, but their intense faith in both G-d and humanity, their belief that all of us have value, their insistence that Torah must be the possession of everyone – these values will stay with us, and inspire us, and push us to greater levels of action, faith, love, and learning.
Rabbi Sacks wrote movingly of his world falling apart after the death of his father. But after two years of mourning, “I found comfort. I thought he was not there. Then I realized he was. Something in him lived on in me. I could still see him, hear him, turn to him for advice, knowing what he would say… I knew that the people who change our lives do not die. They live on in us as we live on in our children. That is as much of immortality as we will ever know this side of the grave, and it is enough.” (Celebrating Life, pp. 63-64)
May we feel the presence of our heroes even when they are no longer with us; and may their example inspire us to try to become heroes to others.