For the Rav, zt”l, whether in halachah, aggadah, drush or personal relationships, there always seemed to exist two aspects to everything: din/rachamim, yotzer/borei, zochor/nekeyva, cheftza/gavra. My relationship with the Rav was also a dual one.
My initial encounter with the Rav was upon arriving at Yeshiva University as a freshman. After seven years of learning in the Telshe Yeshivah in Cleveland, I had a rather inflated image of my capabilities as a scholar. Rav Mendel Zachs, zt”l, also seemed impressed and I was assigned to the Rav’s shiur. Needless to say, after the first shiur, my self-esteem quickly vanished. My classmates and I rapidly developed acute cases of fear. We all sat in the shiur with great trepidation, lest he call on us to read or explain a passage in the Gemara. I quickly learned that in the pursuit of intellectual honesty and “truth in learning,” nothing can be an impediment. Respect, honor, dignity or esteem became meaningless in the pursuit of the true interpretation.
However, with the passage of time, even as we cowered in our seats, we learned to admire the Rav’s genius as a rebbe, teacher, and, as he used to say, a “melamed” par excellence. We listened in awe and reverence as he clarified the most enigmatic and obscure passages. My favorite and most descriptive episode of this talent dates back to a shiur of two hours’ length that consisted of a single Tosafos of six small lines. It was truly an inspirational and enlightening intellectual trip. By the end of shiur every choice of word, every letter in those six lines “danced and saluted.” On the way out, my chavrusa turned to me guilelessly and said, “I will bet you Tosafos didn’t understand that Tosafos as well as the Rav does.”
It is, however, the other side of my relationship with the Rav that I would like to share with you. After the passing of Rebbetzin Tanya Soloveitchik, a”h, I was privileged to help care for the Rav’s medical needs. I would see him routinely on Tuesday afternoons and on being called.
During these encounters, I began seeing an aspect of this brilliant intellectual giant that he painstakingly hid from the world. The world recognized the Rav as a gaon in creativity in the intellectual challenges to man. They did not realize that he was also a gaon in the moral, ethical challenges.
In the later years, one of his students was given the privilege of serving the Rav in his apartment. One ambitious fellow used the opportunity frequently to ask the Rav difficult and perplexing questions. When I witnessed this, I asked the Rav about it. He smiled; “He thinks that I don’t realize that I am writing his Ph.D. thesis for graduate school.”
The Gemara (Yebamoth 79a) states that the nation of Israel is distinguished by three characteristics: Rachmanim—merciful, Baishanim—bashful and Gomlei Chassadim—benevolent. During his weekly two-and-a-half day stay in New York, in addition to teaching three lengthy shiurim to the students, giving a lengthy shiur to baalei batim at Congregation Morya in the evening, and occasional lectures in universities and graduate schools, the Rav was continuously badgered and beleaguered by Roshei Yeshivah, students, politicians and organizations seeking an audience for answers to she’elos, clarifications of positions, and advice on all number of topics. Nevertheless, no matter how busy he was, he found time each week to visit a wheelchair-bound rabbi, who had been stricken by a neuromuscular disorder.
– Every Erev Yom Tov, the Rav placed long distance calls to a number of widowed rebbetzins of musmachim who had learned with him. A postcard with the Rav’s unique handwriting brought Leshanah Tovah greetings unfailingly every year. Good Yom Tov wishes by telephone enhanced the simchas Yom Tov in our house.
– The Rav spearheaded the creation of an anonymous fund for a widow of one of his students, who had been left in a difficult financial position. He also contributed generously from his own pocket. I was astounded when I happened to learn of the vast dollar amounts that the Rav himself distributed to various yeshivos and other charities.
– A graduate of Yeshiva University, married with three children, who had never been the Rav’s student, lay terminally ill in Mount Sinai Hospital. Upon discovering the gravity of the situation, the Rav asked to visit him.
– The maid who cleaned the Rav’s apartment was retired by Yeshiva University without fanfare. When he be came aware of this, he sent one of the boys to buy a cake and a present and himself hosted a farewell party.
– The class was once puzzled when suddenly the lengthy shiurim became obviously shortened. The Rav had be come aware that a student who had developed a serious hematologic disorder would have had to leave before the end of shiur to receive his treatments, and discreetly shortened the length of the shiur.
– The birth of a son on Shabbos to a musmach with a pulpit in the Midwest, presented a problem which was referred to the Rav. No mohel was available for a Shabbos Bris. The Rav personally arranged a weekend trip for a mohel from New York.
During one of his trips to New York, the Rav passed out in the plane. I was called to meet him at the airport. When he was brought out by wheelchair, it became evident that he was merely dehydrated. To ascertain his mental status, I asked him the day of the week and the date. He correctly answered Tuesday but missed the month and date badly. Noticing the surprise on my face, he said: “You know you don’t ask a Brisker dates. Ask me a Rambam.”
A discussion once developed among several of us as to what the Rav’s custom was regarding the recitation of the p’sukim and the Ribono Shel Olam prayer during Birkhas Kohanim. The answer came from a respected rabbi. He related that a congregant of his had been orphaned as a very young child. The boy davened in the Maimonides Shul. During Birkhas Kohanim, the Rav would take the young orphan under his own talis.
I once had to hospitalize the Rav on an Erev Shavuos. My decision to stay with him in the hospital was overridden by him. He opened the Rambam to Hilchos Yom Tov, 7:17 and insisted that I join my family. A minyan was arranged, and the nurses were instructed to attend to the “special patient.” After Yom Tov, the nurses reported that visitors had been continuously present all day. The nurses were so overwhelmed by this scene and by the Rav’s pleasant conduct, that a gentile nurse exclaimed to me, “I understood that he was a special rabbi, but I didn’t know he was the world’s greatest rabbi.”
One year, Shabbos Parshas Vayikra, our family visited Boston. We davened with the Rav. Following Minchah, as was the custom in Maimonides every Shabbos, we all sat around and hurled questions on the sidrah at the Rav. The Rav had invited me to sit near him. My son, aged 8, was on my lap. After several beautiful and brilliant explanations by the Rav, my son suddenly called out in a very loud stage whisper: “Daddy, is the Rav smarter than Hashem?” The Rav
chuckled and flashed him a big smile. The encouragement inspired my son to try to stump the Rav. He asked him “Why is Vayikra written with a small aleph?” The Rav praised the question and rephrased it for the audience. He explained: If the purpose of the small aleph is to differentiate between Moshe and Bilaam, why did the Torah not do this in Sh’mos where vayikra el Moshe first appears? After again commending my son on the excellence of the query, the Rav proceeded with a beautiful explanation. A large set of Rambam with a poetic handwritten brachah on the front leaf of the first volume, was a Bar Mitzvah gift from the Rav to my son which is, of course, a cherished treasure today.
On occasions when he was not feeling well, the Rav stayed in our home. During breakfast one morning, my 3-year-old daughter climbed on the Rav’s lap, sampled his cottage cheese, and then proceeded to engage in a very serious give-and-take about her favorite doll.
Following the last time the Rav was Mesader Kiddushin in New York, I stayed with him near the chupah until the dancing crowd cleared the hall. As we were walking out, a little old lady approached the Rav and asked him for his business card. She explained that her granddaughter was about to be married. She was so impressed by the Rav’s performance that she would like him to officiate. Politely and gently, he replied that he was soon returning to Boston and would have to decline.
According to the Rav, the prohibition of lo tesaev mitzri ki ger hoyisa b’artzo was commanded to Jews to inculcate in us the midah of hakoras hatov. The theme recurs numerous times in the Torah to establish it as a basic component in the Jewish ethic. Kindnesses to the Soloveitchik family were never forgotten and always repaid in excess. For many months he traveled to the Bronx every Wednesday to visit a rebbetzin receiving chemotherapy for a malignancy. Her only tie to the Rav was that her father had done a kindness to Reb Moshe, the Rav’s father. When Professor Louis Ginzberg of the Jewish Theological Seminary died, the Rav went to visit the mourning family. They asked if the Rav knew the deceased. He replied that he had met him once. Later, he explained that the meeting occurred when Professor Ginzberg came to pay a shiva call after Reb Moshe’s petira.
It is well known that Reb Chaim was machmir in pikuach nefesh. The Rav extended this position. The father of a student developed a severe post-operative infection that baffled the infectious disease team of a hospital on Long Island. A preeminent specialist from a university hospital, formerly a student of the Rav, refused all calls and invitations to consult on the matter. A personal call from the Rav, including a definition of pikuach nefesh, had him at the bedside within two hours.
The Rav amassed a phenomenal wealth of medical information in many areas. When the Rebbetzin was ill, the Rav was more familiar with medical literature on her condition than many of her attending physicians. At a medical ethics seminar, a noted oncologist was introduced to the Rav. After a lengthy conversation, the doctor commented to me that he thought that he had been speaking to a medical colleague.
When the early signs of Parkinson’s appeared, the Rav described his symptoms precisely and clearly to the doctors. They suspected that he had consulted the medical books on the subject. In fact, it was only many years later that the Rav began suspecting that he was suffering from the disease.
The Rambam on the pasuk “vayikra lo kel Elokei Yisrael,” (Genesis 33:20) quotes the Gemara Megillah to explain that God called Yaakov kel. The Rav explained: We are commanded (Deut. 13:5) Vehalachta b’derachav—you should walk in His ways. The Gemara (Sotah 14a) asks: “How can we walk after the Shechinah? Is it not a consuming fire?” Rather, it means that one should imitate His ways. This is the meaning of the pasuk: If you want to know what are the ways of God, then look at the Yaakovs, the talmidei chachamim, and the Roshei Yeshivah—they represent God on the earth. The Rav, though well-concealed, was such a model.
Reb Velvel Brisker was once asked why the world recognized the Chofetz Chaim as a great tzaddik but not as a profound talmid chacham, despite his authorship of the monumental halachic work of the Mishnah Brurah. He replied that the Chofetz Chaim prayed daily that God keep his scholarly abilities hidden, and so they were. Why then did he not pray for a similar camouflage of his ethical behavior? The reply was that the Chofetz Chaim was aware of his talmudic abilities—but he was not aware of his tzidkus. Similarly, the Rav’s ethical behavior was so ingrained that he did not feel it to be extraordinary. Thus, the entire world unanimously acknowledged him as a giant in talmud Torah and intellectual creativity. Those of us who had the privilege to get close to him, knew him also as a giant in midos.
Yehi zichro baruch.
Dr. Allen Goldstein was an ENT physician and surgeon in New York and a student of the Rav. He passed away in 2016.
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Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik: Biographical Highlights by Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff and Edited by Rabbi Joseph Epstein