The Indomitable Spirit of Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik

By Shmuel Marcus

The ba’alei musar tell us that perfection requires that one possess a combination of chesed (kindness) and gevurah (strength) which is tempered by emet (truth). My grandfather, Rav Ahron Soloveichik, exemplified all three.

My grandfather was born in Russia on May 1, 1917, to Rav Moshe and Pesha Soloveichik. In 1930, not long after his Bar Mitzvah, the family immigrated to New York where Rav Moshe had been offered the position of rosh yeshivah at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS). My grandfather attended Yeshiva University High School and then Yeshiva College, where he received a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics. He later received a law degree from New York University. During his years at RIETS, he learned in his father’s shiur and then, following his father’s passing, in the shiur of his older brother, Rav Yosef Dov, the Rav.

My grandfather’s distinguished family heritage (he was the grandson of Rav Chaim Brisker and a great grandson of the Beit Halevi) certainly provided him with pristine Torah ideals and many illustrious role models. Nevertheless, his ultimate greatness in Torah was due to his tremendous self-motivation, his firm resolve to excel in learning and his iron willpower which propelled him forward in his never-ending quest for Torah knowledge.

Throughout his life, he learned with incredible diligence. In the late 1940s and ‘50s, when he taught a shiur in Yeshivat Rabbi Chaim Berlin in East New York, he would take a briefcase of sefarim with him so that he would not waste any time during the two-hour subway trip from Washington Heights. Occasionally, he would become so engrossed in his learning, he would miss his stop and arrive late for shiur.

He would sit in the beit midrash with his head bent over a sefer the entire day, concentrating intently, oblivious to whatever was going on around him. It was as if his immersion in the Gemara had transported him to a metaphysical world.

This hasmadah (diligence) remained with him throughout his life. One year on Shavuot morning, one of my uncles, a teenager at the time, came home from yeshivah after learning all night and, like everyone else, went to sleep. He awoke a short time later and was surprised to hear the sound of energetic learning emanating from the porch, where my grandfather was sitting. “Abba, aren’t you tired?” my uncle asked. “I didn’t stay up all night just to sleep all day,” my grandfather replied.

  …his ultimate greatness in Torah was due to his tremendous self-motivation, his firm resolve to excel in learning and his iron willpower…

One year, when the Rav was sick, my grandfather assumed the responsibility of teaching his brother’s Gemara and Yoreh Deah shiurim at Yeshiva University (YU) while teaching a daily Gemara shiur in a different mesechta at Yeshivat Rabbi Chaim Berlin. In addition, he delivered two weekly shiurim. This is but one example of how hasmadah and amelut baTorah–diligence and exerting oneself to learn and teach Torah—were integral parts of my grandfather’s life.

My grandfather’s Thursday Parashat Hashavuah hashkafah shiur, which he taught at YU in the 1960s, was a popular attraction in the Yeshiva. Students would crowd into the shiur and stand in the aisles to hear contemporary, sometimes controversial, issues discussed from a Torah perspective.

In addition to his learning, my grandfather was a ba’al chesed par excellence. One early morning, already having moved to Chicago, he was walking to Yeshivas Brisk and noticed a mentally disabled child who had wandered out of his house while his parents were still sleeping. Despite the fact that he was a rosh yeshivah in his 60s, my grandfather walked the child home and played with him until his parents awoke. My grandfather could have easily delegated the job to one of his talmidim, yet he eagerly seized the opportunity to do chesed himself.

When, in the days preceding one Rosh Hashanah, a student of his from Chicago had to be hospitalized in Rochester, Minnesota, my grandfather traveled there to bring the young man some food for the Yom Tov. Upon arriving, however, my grandfather became concerned that he might inadvertently transmit a cold he had to his student. To avoid this, he stood by the door as he conversed with his talmid for the entire duration of his visit.

My uncle remembers walking with my grandfather on New York’s Lower East Side and seeing a drunk man collapse in the street. My grandfather helped the man to his feet, and then walked with him from house to house until they found his home. My grandfather would often tell me “verachamav al kol ma’asav”–“His compassion is upon all His creations” (Psalms 145)–applies to both Jews and non-Jews; this story is but one example of how he lived by that verse.

His gevurah–not his physical strength, but his inner fortitude, determination and perseverance–amazed those who knew him. In 1983, he suffered a debilitating stroke that left him partially paralyzed on his left side. His left arm was rendered virtually useless, and sometimes shook uncontrollably. Even after intense therapy he was only able to walk with a cane, often enduring tremendous pain.

Despite these handicaps, not only did he resume teaching his shiur in Yeshivas Brisk, he even assumed new responsibilities, commuting weekly between Chicago and New York to teach at YU as he had done in the 1960s, prior to his move to Chicago. For 15 years, despite his handicap and advanced age, my grandfather would rise Tuesday mornings about 4:30 am so that he could arrive at the airport in time for his two-hour flight out of Chicago. For a young, healthy person such a schedule would be difficult; for a partially paralyzed stroke victim it should have been unthinkable. But Torah was my grandfather’s lifeline; he lived to learn, he lived to teach. Rather than tire him out, the trips to New York invigorated him and gave him strength to go on. In recent years, when my grandfather was already in his 80s and quite frail, he was frequently hospitalized. His first concern, however, was that he be released as soon as possible because he had to fly to New York on Tuesday.

  For a young, healthy person such a schedule would be difficult; for a partially paralyzed stroke victim it should have been unthinkable.

His courage and perseverance inspired not only his talmidim but even the non-Jewish employees of United Airlines in Newark and Chicago, who developed a deep respect, admiration, even love for “the rabbi” as they fondly referred to him.

Moshe Presworsky, who devoted himself to caring for my grandfather’s every need in the years before his death, related to me that he once accompanied my grandfather to Newark airport and they arrived too late for the flight. As they entered the airport, the gateway was already being pulled from the plane. But as soon as the ticket agent saw “the rabbi,” he radioed the gate, “Hold the plane for the rabbi!” They held the plane.

One remarkable story told at the shivah house in Chicago also demonstrates the extent to which my grandfather inspired even non-Jews. Soon after my grandfather’s passing, a Jewish man, who lives in Chicago, attended a Chicago Bears’ football game. Sitting next to him was a non-Jew. They struck up a friendly conversation, and eventually exchanged business cards. Noticing the man’s name on the card, the non-Jewish fellow asked, “Are you Jewish?” Upon receiving an affirmative response he said, “I know one Jewish rabbi, by the name of Soloveichik.” Surprised, the Jewish man mentioned that Rabbi Soloveichik had just died. The non-Jew was so distressed he literally dropped his beer, and immediately called his wife on his cell phone. When she found out, she hung up in anguish. It turned out that the man’s wife worked for United Airlines at Chicago O’ Hare, and for years she arranged for my grandfather to have the seat on the plane closest to the door so that he wouldn’t have to walk more than necessary; she even gave my grandparents her home phone number in case they needed some last minute help at the airport. It was clear that over the years she and her family had developed an intense respect and admiration for my grandfather, and God wanted them to be told of this great loss.

In addition to commuting to New York, my grandfather fought the effects of the stroke in every way possible. Up until the last two years or so, he adamantly refused to sit in a wheelchair and insisted on walking through the halls only with the aid of his cane, despite the inordinate amount of time and difficulty involved.

I still recall watching him stand every morning during Shacharit to recite Mizmor Letodah. During the time it took him to rise from his seat, he could have said this short paragraph many times over. Besides, standing for Mizmor Letodah is a custom and not halachah. And yet he refused to compromise one iota.

There was also the way in which he was mekabel yisurin–lovingly accepting of the Divine decree. He never complained. His accepted everything b’ahavah–with love. Often when he walked and the pain was most intense, he would burst into song. This was somewhat uncharacteristic, for my grandfather was not one to sing very often; he was fond of quoting Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, who said there are three types of melodies: a melody with words, a melody without words and a melody without a melody, which refers to the sweet sounds of Torah. My grandfather’s favorite song was the third type, the one without a tune, just words of Torah. And yet, when he walked, he would sing. He wouldn’t sing mournful songs but joyous songs of praise for God.

One memory, seared into my mind as a young child, remains vivid to this day. A summer or two after the stroke, my family was visiting Chicago. I was upstairs when I heard my grandfather singing in the dining room downstairs. As I descended the stairs, I saw him seated while undergoing an intensely painful procedure as part of his therapy. Despite the obvious pain, he was singing “Odeh LaKel”—“I Will Give Thanks to God.” On other occasions when he was in pain, I would hear him sing two other songs: “Baruch Hu Elokeinu”–“Blessed Is Our God,” and “Ashreinu Mah Tov Chelkeinu”–“How Fortunate We Are; How Wonderful Is Our Lot.” My grandfather was acutely aware of the Divine involvement in every aspect of his life. No matter how poor his health, no matter how difficult the pain, he realized this was his Divinely ordained challenge in life, his personal avodat Hashem, and he treasured the opportunity to serve God however possible. If this is what God had decided, he was happy; and he therefore was able to sing Odeh LaKel and Ashreinu Mah Tov Chelkeinu. That was his gevurah, his inner strength.

Perhaps one of the hallmarks of my grandfather’s personality was, as Rav Aharon Lichtenstein wrote in an article in Jewish Action (“The Source of Faith Is Faith Itself,” fall, 1992), that he was “a pillar of radical integrity”–the middah of emet. His fidelity and commitment to truth was so deeply ingrained that if he felt something was required according to Torah law, he would not compromise, regardless of the consequences.

In 1957, when my grandfather became the kashrut supervisor of Streit’s Matzo, he was surprised to discover, while visiting the flourmill, that contrary to popular belief, not all the flour in the US was yashan (made from grain that took root in the ground before the second day of the most recent Pesach holiday). The Shulchan Aruch rules that one should be careful to eat yashan, that is products that are not made from newly harvested grains (which took root after the second day of the most recent Pesach). Only after the 17th day of Nisan may one eat grain products harvested during the previous few months. However, due to the difficulty involved in obtaining grain from the previous year’s harvest, the accepted practice of most Jews has been to rely on leniencies with regard to this halachah. Nowadays, the observance of yashan has seen a revival and its popularity is rapidly spreading throughout the United States and Canada. But 45 years ago, most people had never even heard of yashan, let alone observed it. And yet my grandfather passionately insisted on strict allegiance to this halachah. And so my grandmother bought an extra freezer and they stocked up on bread. When they ran out of bread, they ate Streit’s matzah, which is always yashan. The family sometimes went for weeks eating matzah–and no bread–since that was the only yashan product they could find.

As a result of my grandfather’s efforts to impress upon others the importance of yashan, the first yashan bakery in North America was established in Chicago under his guidance, despite much opposition from others who thought this was an unnecessary innovation. Today, my grandfather’s sacrifice and dedication has been rewarded and every major North American Jewish community boasts at least one if not numerous yashan bakeries.

In monetary issues as well, he was extremely vigilant about upholding the truth. While he was serving as a pulpit rabbi for a number of years, at one point the shul board fired the chazzan. My grandfather felt that according to halachah the board had no right to do so; for months, he refused to take a salary from the shul and returned the money in protest until a settlement was reached with the chazzan.

Even if emet meant giving up his main source of income, my grandfather did just that. After leaving YU in the 1960s, he was appointed rosh yeshivah of another Torah institution before he founded Yeshivas Brisk. He required that his musmachim sign an agreement not to accept a rabbinic position in a shul without a proper mechitzah, a practice that was quite prevalent before his arrival. His insistence on this issue caused a great deal of friction within the administration.

Similarly, when an Orthodox shul was sold to a Japanese cult to be used as a shrine in flagrant violation of halachah, my grandfather organized public protests against the sale even though influential members of the yeshivah administration were in favor of the transaction. One morning, while my grandfather was delivering a Yoreh Deah shiur, an administrator walked in and handed him a note threatening that he would lose his job if he didn’t back down from his public opposition to the sale. My grandfather turned to his talmidim and said, “I don’t care what they say, I am going to protest!” He did, and he lost his job.

But he went on and he founded his own yeshivah. And when his yeshivah building was destroyed in a fire, he moved to another building. No matter how much he endured, he kept going.

The Gemara in Ketubot (103) states that when Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi (Rebbi) was about to die he called his colleagues and instructed them to start learning immediately after 30 days of eulogies. The Gemara explains that Rebbi held that it is prohibited to eulogize someone for more than 30 days. If so, we may ask, why didn’t Rebbi simply tell them to stop the eulogies after 30 days? Perhaps the message of the Gemara is that the true measure of an effective eulogy is whether it is immediately followed by learning and renewed inspiration in one’s avodat Hashem. It is my tefillah that the memories of my grandfather will serve as a source of elevation in our own avodat Hashem.

Rabbi Marcus received a B.A. from Yeshiva College, an M.S. from Azrieli Graduate School, and semichah from RIETS. He is a member of the Bella and Harry Wexner Kollel Elyon at RIETS and resides in Manhattan with his wife and two children.




This article was featured in the Fall 2002 issue of Jewish Action.