A Personal Reminiscence

When Rav Betzalel Zolty, zt”l, the chief rabbi of Yerushalayim, delivered the hesped (eulogy) for Rav Elimelech Bar-Shaul, zt”l, the chief rabbi of Rechovot, he commenced with a quotation from the hesped Dovid HaMelech gave for Yehonatan: “Tzar li alecha achi Yehonatan; na’amta li me’od, I am distressed over you, my brother Yehonatan; you were so pleasant to me.” Rav Zolty questioned Dovid HaMelech’s use of the word “achi, brother.” He could understand if Dovid HaMelech had used the word “chaver,” “re’a,” “yedid” or “yedid nefesh.” But why “achi, brother”? No matter how close the two may have been, Yehonatan wasn’t Dovid’s brother. Rav Zolty answered with the following: “ach ein lo temurah, a brother has no replacement.” When one loses a brother, there is no way to transfer the relationship to another. Ach ein lo temurah. That, added Rav Zolty, reflected his feeling of loss upon the passing of his chaver, Rav Elimelech Bar-Shaul.

With Rav Aharon’s passing, I felt similarly: “Tzar li alecha achi Aharon; na’amta li me’od.” How might one describe Rav Aharon Lichtenstein? A brilliant Torah scholar. A pedagogue beyond compare. One who possessed extraordinary piety, courage, selflessness, clarity of vision and purpose. A man whose level of intellectual honesty was matched only by his quest for emet. A man of true humility and integrity.

The former Chief Rabbi of Britain Lord Jonathan Sacks described Rav Aharon as “a man of great intellect, equally at home in the literature of the sages and of the world, and a master Talmudist; a profound exponent of Jewish thought; a deep and subtle thinker who loved English literature and whose spiritual horizons were vast.”

I will leave to others more literate and erudite than I am to dwell on these attributes. Instead I will focus on Rabbi Sacks’ next sentence: “No less impressive was his stature as a human being, caring and sensitive in all his relationships; one who honored his fellows even when he disagreed with them; a living role model of Jewish ethics at
its best.”

It was 1958–fifty-seven years ago–and I was in the shiur of Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik, zt”l.

It started with a rumor–someone mentioned in the beit midrash that he heard that “the Babe” was returning to yeshivah from Harvard, after having earned his PhD in English literature.

Who was “the Babe”? The old timers informed us he was Babe Lichtenstein, the young ilui from Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin and now a full-fledged gaon, in the truest sense of the word. Indeed, he was already a legend. Moreover, what is equally relevant–to me, at least–he was a gaon in middot. If we could only learn to emulate how he interacted with people–whether with his late parents, with five generations of his family, with in-laws, with roshei yeshivah, with any and every human being he met–we would all be richer for it.

Many people, especially the students at Yeshivat Har Etzion, witnessed the mesirut nefesh Rav Aharon exhibited when his aging father became blind and almost deaf. They saw how Rav Aharon sacrificed his own tefillah, in a sense, to enable his father to fulfill his chiyuv tefillah (obligation to pray) despite the fact that he may not have even had an obligation to pray due to his physical condition. This dedication to his father has become part of the legend of Gush.

After Rav Lichtenstein passed away, during the week of shivah, the house was predictably crowded with visitors coming to pay their respects. But a few of the visitors were unexpected. A delegation of Arab workers at the yeshivah came to mourn a man who always treated them with respect, who would go out of his way, especially prior to the yamim tovim, to thank them on behalf of the yeshivah and himself for all they did to make the students’ time in yeshivah more comfortable and productive. No doubt, Rav Aharon fell within that very select group of talmidei chachamim worthy of being allowed into the beit midrash of Rabban Gamliel because, as the gemara in Berachot (28) points out, tocho k’varo, his inner character fully corresponded to that of his exterior.

Returning to 1958 and the impending arrival of Rav Aharon to yeshivah, I was warned that I shouldn’t be misled by his easygoing, friendly nature. On the basketball court, especially under the basket, his elbows were sharp and he played rough. He played fair, but like everything he did, he played to win.

What a change he made in our class! While on the one hand he was deliberately laid back and tried to blend into the rest of the class, rarely volunteering an answer on his own, on the other hand, it wasn’t long before we realized that this student was clearly different. Whenever the Rav was searching for a citation, he would look to Rav Aharon who would immediately respond with the chapter and verse. It soon became clear he was a walking Encyclopedia Talmudit.

The author’s wedding on November 1, 1959, in New York. Seated, on the left, is the author; in the center, standing, is Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, witness to the ketubah; seated on the right is Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, mesader Kiddushin and rebbe of the author. Courtesy of Julius Berman

The author’s wedding on November 1, 1959, in New York. Seated, on the left, is the author; in the center, standing, is Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, witness to the ketubah; seated on the right is Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, mesader Kiddushin and rebbe of the author. Courtesy of Julius Berman

Many have referred to Rav Aharon’s humility and integrity; others have described his acts of chesed, and I’m confident we can fill an entire issue of this magazine just skimming the surface of the kindness he has exhibited through the years. And yet, and I say this most respectfully, I don’t consider these acts chesed at all. To my mind, an act of chesed is one that is l’ma’alah min hateva, out of the ordinary, not expected in the normal course of conduct. But whose “normal” are we referring to? Certainly not Rav Aharon’s. According to Rav Aharon’s “normal,” kindness was integral; chesed was not “l’ma’alah min hateva”; it was part and parcel of his teva.

My brother-in-law, a talmid of Rav Aharon when he taught at Yeshiva University, had arranged to have a pair of tefillin written in Gush for his son’s upcoming bar mitzvah. When the tefillin were ready, he asked the sofer to bring them to Rav Aharon at Yeshivat Har Etzion with the understanding that Rav Aharon would bring them home to Yerushalayim and my brother-in-law would pick them up from his house. Unfortunately, on the day chosen for the delivery, it was raining heavily. That afternoon, my brother-in-law, who was in a hotel in Jerusalem, heard a knock on the door. Opening it, he saw Rav Aharon, wet from the rain, with the tefillin in hand. My brother-in-law, feeling very uncomfortable, said that the understanding was that he was to go to Rav Aharon’s house to pick up the tefillin. Rav Aharon nonchalantly responded that he had to get wet anyway going home from the yeshivah, so why should both of them get wet?

That was Rav Aharon.

On the other hand, try to be nice, to do a chesed, even a simple kindness, for Rav Aharon–it was nearly impossible.

Before his son Yitzchok moved to Monsey, Rav Aharon would stay at our house when he came to New York. Rav Aharon’s brief trips to New York two or three times a year would follow a familiar pattern.

About a month before his arrival, the calls would start coming in–first sporadically, then with increasing frequency as the date of his arrival approached. The caller heard that Rav Aharon would be arriving soon and he wished to make an appointment with him. If Rav Aharon had been contacted in Israel, he would usually suggest that the caller contact my wife, Dottie, who was president at the time of the Etzion Foundation, to arrange a meeting. Dottie knew that Rav Aharon needed time to deliver shiurim at Yeshiva University, interview applicants to Gush and give community lectures or deliver Orthodox Forum essays. How Dottie was able to juggle Rav Aharon’s schedule is beyond me.

When Rav Aharon would arrive on an early morning flight, he would take a taxi directly to my shul in Forest Hills, Queens, where I would meet him. After shul, as we were leaving, I would try to take Rav Aharon’s suitcase to the car. But I never succeeded. Invariably he would insist on taking the suitcase himself. I didn’t have the nerve to tell Rav Aharon that I was embarrassed because people would see both of us walk out of shul- he with a large suitcase and heavy carry-on and me with nothing in either hand other than a set of car keys.

Once we arrived home, Rav Aharon would begin to work either on an article for the Orthodox Forum or on a shiur he would be delivering.

The problem–for me, anyway–was in the kitchen. Dottie was aware of Rav Aharon’s food preferences. The complication arose after he finished eating. Rav Aharon insisted on washing every dish, plate and utensil he used, returning the uneaten food to the proper place and leaving the kitchen spotless. While my wife, naturally, was thankful, I was not. What a terrible example he was setting for me in my own home!

After breakfast, I would head off to work and sometimes Dottie would have to leave for a short while to shop or keep an appointment. That left Rav Aharon all alone, working on his lectures or shiurim. But now he had another task: answering the phone. Imagine the scene. The phone rings. Rav Aharon answers. Sometimes it’s for Rav Aharon, and that’s fine. But if it’s not, the caller is perplexed; he knows the number he called, but he doesn’t recognize the voice. So he asks, “Julie?” and Rav Aharon answers, “He’s not home.” The obvious question then follows, “Who is this?” Answer: “Aharon Lichtenstein.” Dead silence. Finally, Rav Aharon says, “May I take a message?” When my wife comes home, our temporary telephone operator dutifully reports to her all the messages.

I’ve learned from Rav Aharon that a true friend can even divine the need of a friend and decide on his own to do a kindness, even a major kindness, without being asked.

My father, zt”l, passed away on Asarah b’Tevet in 1987. He was to be buried in the cemetery of Yeshivas Ponevezh in Bnei Brak. When Rav Aharon was informed of the petirah, on his own he went to pick up my son Elie and my nephew Ari who were attending Gush and brought them to the airport to escort my father to Bnei Brak. They stopped in front of the yeshivah and scores of bachurim came out to greet the procession and, at the request of a cousin of mine, Rav Aharon delivered a hesped for my father, following which they proceeded to the cemetery for the kevurah. Shortly thereafter, Rav Aharon showed up at the hakamat hamatzeivah and again eulogized my father.

Rav Aharon insisted on washing every dish, plate and utensil he used, returning the uneaten food to the proper place, leaving the kitchen spotless. While my wife, naturally, was thankful, I was not. What a terrible example he was setting for me in my own home!

While Rav Aharon taught hundreds of talmidim over the years, there are many individuals who, despite the fact that they never learned in Yeshivat Har Etzion, consider Rav Aharon to be their rebbe.

To illustrate: A few years ago, Rav Aharon required a medical procedure and needed to be sedated. The procedure lasted longer than planned, so additional sedatives had to be administered. After some time, it became clear that the procedure was not going to be successful and was aborted. A short while later, even though he was still somewhat sedated, Rav Aharon was permitted to leave. To reach the parking lot, Rav Aharon had to take an elevator. When the elevator finally arrived, the doors opened and a crowd, including Rav Aharon’s party, moved quickly inside. Suddenly, Rav Aharon changed course and swiftly left the elevator. The service door to an adjacent bakery had opened and a young man with a large cart filled with baked goods was trying to maneuver himself through the opening. Rav Aharon reached for the door, held it open for the young man with his goods until he passed and then returned to the elevator.

A few weeks later, the doctor who had accompanied Rav Aharon to the hospital was participating in a medical convention in Vienna. He was on a train on the way to the conference when the doors of the train opened. On the platform stood a young woman with a baby carriage attempting to enter the crowded train. The doctor expected someone inside the train who was close to the doors to give the young woman a hand. No one moved. His first reaction was not to intervene. After all, he was in a foreign country wearing a yarmulke, and, therefore, trying to keep a low profile. However, he visualized a sedated Rav Aharon running to help the young man with his cart. The doctor then went to help the young woman with the carriage. Even though the doctor never learned in Yeshivat Har Etzion, he too considers himself to be a student of Rav Aharon.

Rav Soloveitchik once pointed out that one could not frame a better job description for a manhig Yisrael than Moshe Rabbeinu himself did when responding to his father-in-law’s reprimand about his daily schedule: “Ki yihiyeh lahem davar, ba eilay, When they have a matter, they come to me” (Shemot 18:16). A manhig, explained the Rav, engages in chesed, whether its helping someone with a personal problem, a family issue or sometimes an intergenerational dispute. That, said the Rav, is a manhig as a ba’al chesed. Moshe continues: “V’shafat’ti bein ish u’vein re’eihu, And I judge between a man and his fellow.” That, according to the Rav, is a manhig as a posek, whether judging purely halachic issues or resolving disputes between people. Finally concludes Moshe, “V’hodati et chukei ha’Elokim v’et Torahtav, And I make known, I teach, the decrees of Hashem and His teachings.” That, said the Rav, is the manhig in his role as rosh yeshivah.

The Rav then went on to list a series of manhigim through the years and point out in which of the three categories each excelled.

Fortunate is the generation that has the privilege to have as its manhig a man that in his composite personality combined all three of the attributes of manhigut described by Moshe Rabbeinu: the ba’al chesed, the posek and the rosh yeshivah- proficient in each, but always the warm, engaging, approachable, pleasant, cordial human being suffused with humility and integrity.

Rav Aharon represented all of our dreams of what Torah could mean in our lives. May his memory inspire us to live in his shadow and to continue to be influenced by his living lessons to be a ben or bat Torah as the first stop on the path to the ultimate goal of being an eved Hashem.

Julius Berman, a former president of the OU (1978-1984), is past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and president of the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Additionally, he is a board member of the Toras HoRav Foundation, dedicated to the publication of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s unpublished manuscripts.

This article was featured in the Fall 2015 issue of Jewish Action.
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