IN COMMEMORATION OF THE RAV’S TWENTY-FIFTH YAHRTZEIT
Seeing the Rav in Boston was quite a different experience from seeing him in New York. When the Rav was in New York, his schedule was relentless—he was working all the time. As soon as he finished giving a shiur at Yeshiva University, he would have a bite to eat in his Washington Heights apartment and then spend several hours meeting with an endless stream of visitors. Later in the evening, he would deliver a shiur at the Moriah Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, attend other events when necessary, and prepare for the shiur he was to deliver at YU the following day. In Boston, however, his schedule was more relaxed. Although there certainly were individuals who traveled to Boston to consult with the Rav, he was able to spend most of the time with his family, and on Shabbat, with friends and acquaintances from the Brookline community.
In the late sixties, when I was in my teens, I attended a shiur by the Rav and it opened my eyes. I decided that I would learn whatever I could from the Rav. I wanted to observe him up close and absorb all that I could. After I started attending the Maimonides Minyan on Shabbat, I noticed that people would walk the Rav home from the minyan to his daughter and son-in-law’s home. (After his wife passed away, the Rav moved into the Twersky home.) Because it was a long walk uphill to the Twersky home, most people accompanied the Rav only part of the way. I asked Abraham Levovitz, the Rav’s loyal friend and follower (who was later to serve as principal of Maimonides School) whether it would be possible for me to tag along on these walks. Mr. Levovitz indicated that in light of the Rav’s age (he was in his sixties at that point) and the fact that no one else accompanied him the entire way home, it would be appropriate for me to do so. And so every Shabbat, for years, I had the zechut to walk several miles from shul to the Rav’s home (and then back to my home) for the pleasure of accompanying and listening to the Rav.
There was no official seudah shelishit at the Maimonides Minyan—most congregants went home to eat the meal; however, the Rav and a few others remained in shul. Invariably, people would crowd around the Rav and pepper him with halachic questions—some were fairly good; others were pretty basic. But the Rav treated each question seriously and respectfully. Sometimes when responding to a question, he would tell a relevant story.
Listening to the Rav explain a pesak was a valuable lesson in and of itself.
His stories were different too—they were never hagiographic. In Lithuania, the rabbis did not generally tell hagiographical stories. But the subjects of the Rav’s stories were relatively limited. It was the minhag of the Soloveitchik family to never tell a story unless they were absolutely certain it was true, so most of the Rav’s stories did not go any further back than the time of Rabbi Akiva Eiger (mid-eighteenth century to early-nineteenth century). The few older stories the family did tell centered on the Vilna Gaon and had been passed down from Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, so their authenticity was unquestionable. Very impressive stories the Rav would tell, but only if they were germane to the topic at hand.
The Rav didn’t care for externals; it was irrelevant if you wore rabbinic or other garb, what position you held or what your socioeconomic status was. For he Rav, the biggest compliment he could give anyone was, “er ken lernen,” which meant the individual knew how to learn Gemara well.
Rabbanim who held prestigious positions would often visit the Rav and he would greet everyone respectfully, but when he deeply admired an individual, it was not because of the position he or she held. He would often quote Pirkei Avot 4:20: “Rebbi omer, ‘Al tistakel b’kankan, ela b’mah sheyesh bo. Yesh kankan chadash malei yashan, v’yashan she’afilu chadash ein bo’—Rebbi says, ‘Do not look at the jug, but rather what is in it. For there are new jugs full of old, and old [jugs] that do not have even new within them.’”
One of the Rav’s most striking traits was his humility. The Rav always dressed in a dignified manner, but eschewed clothing that might identify him as a rabbi. Everyone who had heard about the Rav was aware that he possessed a breadth and depth of knowledge about a broad range of subjects that was rare; yet the Rav did not view himself this way. The Rav spoke about some of his ancestors as being great men, but he referred to himself as a melamed, a simple teacher. He never perceived himself as being in the same league as some of the illustrious rabbanim he knew.
Many times when I would walk home with him, I would listen to people around him discussing various she’eilot. Sometimes the questioner did not necessarily want a pesak; he merely wanted the Rav’s input on a particular topic.
When a group of feminists visited him and demanded that he permit them to wear tallitot, he listened to them, showed he understood their reasoning, and proposed that there first be a trial period during which they would wear colored cloaks as tallitot, but without tzitzit and without reciting a berachah. He asked them to note how they feel wearing them and to come back after two weeks and confer with him again. After two weeks, they reconvened, and when the Rav asked these women how they felt, they told him how inspired they felt when wearing the cloaks. The Rav replied that that was excellent, that they should definitely continue wearing the cloaks and praying with kavanah, and that there was no need to wear the tallitot with tzitzit that men wore. Most of the women accepted this response, because the Rav treated their question with genuine respect and listened to their grievances.
The Rav understood the complexities of Halachah, and it was instructive to see how he would respond to two very similar questions. Unless the question was a simple, factual one, the Rav’s answer to questions that appeared alike would rarely be the same. Reflecting on the different pesakim I heard him deliver over the years, it was clear to me that the Rav took into account a multitude of factors before arriving at a conclusion. He would try to understand who the individual was—how committed he or she was religiously, and how his response would be understood by the questioner and by those around him. There are many different factors that can affect a pesak, and so a thoughtful rav explains the halachah not necessarily by quoting the precise siman in Shulchan Aruch upon which he based the ruling, but by simplifying or elaborating on the relevant halachic concepts, emphasizing this or that aspect, and discussing other circumstances that would affect the pesak and might lead to a different ruling. Listening to the Rav explain a pesak was a valuable lesson in and of itself.
I was studying languages in the Near Eastern Civilizations Department at a local university, and was taking courses not only in ancient Semitic languages but in archeology as well. Occasionally I came to the Rav with a question concerning an archeological discovery and how it related to something that Chazal said. The Rav never dismissed such questions, but would discuss them and suggest several different possible explanations. To me, it was worth taking an archeology course just to see how the Rav approached it, and how he emphasized that the simplest answer one might think of was not necessarily the correct one.
The Rav was exquisitely sensitive to others; his derech eretz was apparent. The Rav and his wife employed an Irish Catholic housekeeper for many years. When she retired, they continued to pay her a weekly stipend for the rest of her life because “it was the right thing to do.”
The Rav spoke about some of his ancestors as being great men, but he referred to himself as a melamed, a simple teacher.
It was not uncommon for Israeli politicians to visit with the Rav, and not only from Mafdal, the National Religious Party. Secular Israeli politicians came as well. On one occasion, after a certain politician visited with the Rav, someone asked him about his impressions of the Torah giant. The politician responded that he had never met someone who could make a simple question so complicated. On another occasion, we asked the Rav what he discussed with a another politician. He didn’t disclose the particular matter (which he felt was confidential), but he did tell us that he had told the politician, a secular Jew, how Adam HaRishon had faced a similar quandary. He then proceeded to tell the politician all about the midrash and what it could teach him about his predicament.
The Rav believed in the infinite power of Torah to change people’s lives. As the Rambam explains in Hilchot Teshuvah, both the Written and the Oral Torah are Divine gifts from Hakadosh Baruch Hu to the Jews. Therefore, talking and thinking about Torah, as well as observing the mitzvot, are ways to bring the Divine into our daily lives. Even if an individual was completely secular, the Rav would introduce a bit of Torah into the conversation in a subtle fashion. He wanted to plant a seed of Torah in the person’s mind, and, he felt, Hakadosh Baruch Hu would see whether or not it would take root.
If one observed the Rav when he was in shul, it was clear that he was reviewing the halachot in his mind as he performed the various rituals. Sometimes someone would ask him a question related to tefillah or to a shul practice, and from his answer one could tell he had been reviewing these halachot only minutes earlier.
It once happened that my mother washed my tallit katan with other items and it turned a light shade of green. I turned to Rabbi Yitzchok Simon, zt”l, after davening, showed him the discolored tzitzit and asked if it was a problem. He said, “Why don’t we ask the Rav?” So we went over to the Rav, who took the opportunity to launch into a discussion of the Rambam regarding the color of tzitzit. This was exactly what Rabbi Simon had hoped would happen, and he grinned as he said to me, “Now you have your answer.” It was clear to both of us that the Rav must have just recently reviewed the Rambam before we asked him, probably when he was putting on his tallit. (The Rav had learned the Rambam by heart when he was young, and could retrieve it from memory anytime he wanted.) If you observed the Rav carefully, you could sometimes see him pause before putting on tefillin or saying part of the davening, and it was clear that he was reviewing in his mind the Torah concepts behind what he was doing.
This is what the Rambam meant by the term “oved me’ahavah”—someone who is so much in love with Hakadosh Baruch Hu and His Torah that he cannot help thinking about it all the time (Hilchot Teshuvah 10:2-3). At a shiur the Rav once gave, he discussed how people are mistaken when they think that the Rambam was a dry jurist listing all the rules. The Rav pointed out places where the Rambam makes remarks showing that he, in the Rav’s words, was “intoxicated with the love of Hakadosh Baruch Hu,” and in his quest to get as close as he could to the Object of his love, the Rambam would think constantly about God and His mitzvot, no matter what he was doing.
The Rav may as well have been talking about himself.
I attended the Rav’s shiurim for many years and learned a lot. But I learned perhaps even more, simply by observing the Rav: I learned what it means to be a good person, to be a good Jew, and to serve God completely and wholeheartedly. I am forever grateful to God for having been given the opportunity.
Rabbi Dr. Seth Mandel is a rabbinic coordinator at OU Kosher. He has a PhD in Semitic languages from Harvard University and has taught Hebrew, Aramaic, linguistics and psycholinguistics, and other subjects in various universities.