In last week’s issue, we began our Hespeid for Rav Lichtenstein and pointed out a handful of his many exemplary characteristics. This week, which marks the Yahrzeit of Rav Lichtenstein, we will conclude our Hespeid by highlighting ten more aspects of his life which can serve as inspirations.
1. Kibbud Av VaEim – Talmidim who learned in the Yeshivah in the years when Rav Aharon cared for his elderly parents witnessed the Gemara and Shulchan Aruch come to life in the manner in which our Rebbe fulfilled the Mitzvah of Kibbud Av VaEim. We saw how Rav Aharon treated his parents with such kindness, sensitivity and joy. A few years ago, I witnessed Rav Aharon’s children treating him with the same kindness when our Rebbe was frail.
2. Outstanding Parenting – Rav Lichtenstein exhorted us to follow his well-known example of devoting time to learning Torah with our children. I witnessed a lesser known facet of his parenting at a Sheva Berachot of one of his children who chose a Chareidi lifestyle. Rav Lichtenstein openly and candidly acknowledged this difference and even embraced it. He noted that a parent’s job is to set a child on a Torah path and the child then has the legitimate choice as to which Torah path to continue. How remarkable is this attitude, especially in light of the fact that many parents do not react in this manner when a child chooses to follow a somewhat different Torah path. Rav Lichtenstein set an example of healthy parenting which allows a child to follow the Torah path best suited for his personality.
3. A Loving and Caring Spouse – Although the Lichtensteins adhered to the highest levels of modesty, the mutual feelings of deep respect, love and affection of the Rav and the Rabbanit for each other was obvious to Talmidim.
4. A Doctorate in English Literature from Harvard University – Rav Lichtenstein on many occasions stated that he found his intense secular education to have been spiritually enriching, famously quoting Chazal (Midrash Eichah 2:13) that “there is wisdom among the nations of the world” and adding that “we ignore it at our loss.” There is, however, another mostly unstated spiritual side of Rav Lichtenstein’s secular accomplishments. Rav Lichtenstein’s impressive secular credentials have fortified the Emunah of many Talmidim including this author. I will speak of my own experience of my family’s becoming observant when I was a child. We had a relative who was highly respected and regarded as the family intellect. He had earned a doctorate in mathematics from New York University and even helped design the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. This relative, however, ridiculed Torah observance and the Talmud. It was difficult to resist such proclamations by an admired relative, but my faith was sustained in great part by Rav Lichtenstein’s doctorate from Harvard. As a very impressionable youngster, I had confidence that my Rebbe, who had earned a doctorate at a more prestigious institution than did my uncle, understood life better than my uncle. If such a learned, brilliant and saintly man believed in Torah, then it surely must be true.
5. The Crown of Torah – Rambam (Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah 21:32) explains that one should not marry a daughter of an Am HaAretz since “She does not recognize the crown of Torah.” Rambam teaches that it is crucial for every Jew to have an appreciation for the greatness and profundity of Torah. Perhaps the most important aspect of an extended period of time devoted to learning from Rav Lichtenstein was experiencing the crown of Torah. I do not think that there is in any other discipline, Lehavdil, such parallel depth and profundity. The crowning experience of the Keter Torah was the two hour Shiur Kelali Rav Lichtenstein delivered at Yeshiva every other week. One can reasonably say (paraphrasing Sukkah 51b) that “one who never heard a Shiur Kelali from Rav Lichtenstein never fully experienced and appreciated the crown of Torah.”
6. Religious Zionism – Rav Lichtenstein’s passion for Eretz Yisrael was contagious. Who can forget the stirring conclusion of Rav Lichtenstein’s magisterial essay (Tradition Fall 1981) extolling the virtues of Yeshivot Hesder, which combine intense Torah study with service in Tzahal: “Standing in tears atop Har Hazeitim, the bleak sight of Kol HaMekudash MeHavera Harev Yoter Mehavera stretching before him, what would the Ramban have given to head a Yeshivat Hesder?” What courage it took to leave a secure and prestigious position in New York, without the encouragement of his great Rebbe and father-in-law Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, to assume a position at a little known Yeshivah located on a sparsely populated bleak hill in Israel! Who can be unmoved by merely contemplating this awesome move? Moreover, Rav Lichtenstein changed the face of Religious Zionism, infusing it with the vision of loving Torah no less than his Chareidi peers, but loving Eretz Yisrael more. Rav Lichtenstein insisted that we not forsake great achievement in our beloved Torah in our devotion to our beloved homeland. Great contemporary Religious Zionist Torah leaders such as Rav Yosef Rimon and Rav Re’eim HaKohein, not to mention Rav Moshe and Meir Lichtenstein, have emerged in the decades since the Lichtensteins made Aliyah, following the bold example set by Rav Aharon.
7. Dedication to Am Yisrael – Only a heartless individual could have failed to be moved by Rav Lichtenstein’s stirring speech delivered immediately before Megillah reading of Purim eve 5443. Rav Aharon exhorted us to follow the example of Esther, who risked everything to save her people in their hour of need. Rav Lichtenstien’s cry, “Chayavim Litrom LeAm Yisrael,” “one must contribute to Am Yisrael,” still rings loudly in my ears.
8. Tolerate the Intolerance – During a particularly moving and meaningful question and answer session with North American Talmidim at the conclusion of our two years of learning at the Yeshivah, Rav Aharon was asked how to react to those in the Chareidi community who disparage Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox Bnei Torah. Rav Lichtenstein immediately responded, “Tolerate the intolerance.” This was but one example of Rav Lichtenstein’s consistently taking the “high road” in a situation of internal conflict. What a shining example of pure and unadulterated Ahavat Yisrael!
9. Morality, Integrity and Authenticity – These powerful words most appropriately portray the exemplary character of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein.
10. Two Kings Wearing One Crown – Rav Neriah was once asked if there are Nissim Geluyim (open miracles) in our time. Rav Neriah quipped that in order to witness miracles in our time, one need only visit Yeshivat Har Etzion and witness Rav Amital and Rav Lichtenstein jointly lead the Yeshivah without rancor and jealousy, but rather in peace, harmony and love. I have heard of situations when Rav Lichtenstein was asked a question to which he stated that he feels he must consult Rav Amital, and when Rav Amital was asked a question and he responded that he must consult Rav Lichtenstein. Perhaps the greatest moment of my period of study at the Gush was witnessing a dramatic scene at the end of Yom Kippur 5444: Rav Lichtenstein came with a big smile to wish Rav Amital a hearty Yasher Kochacha for leading the Ne’ilah service. Rav Amital refused to shake Rav Lichtenstein’s hand, instead planting a kiss on Rav Lichtenstein’s forehead.
It was so sad to see our Rebbe slowing down in later years. Rebbe was so strong dashing to Shiur while carrying his not-so-mini Shas and Rambam under his arm. It was so sad to see such a powerful man deliver his last Shiur at Torah Academy of Bergen County in 2010 during which he struggled to walk and deliver the Shiur.
Father is gone. A great man has gone. Chazal (Chullin 7b) teach that “Tzadikim are greater in death than during their lifetime.” We never fully appreciate the greatness of those who dwell amongst us until they leave us.
Father expected much from us. We hope that we met, at least partially, his lofty expectations. Rav Lichtenstein continues to serve as a powerful role model for all of us. Rav Lichtenstein will serve as a role model even for those who were born after his death in the manner in which Rav Lichtenstein stated that Rav Chayim Soloveitchik served as a powerful role model for him, even though he never met Rav Chayim. May all of us continue to act in a way that pleases father so that we may please Father, Avinu SheBaShamayim.