These thoughts were delivered at Congregation Beth Abraham on April 23, 2015, as part of the Bergen County Azkarah for Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l. We include this two-part presentation in this week’s Kol Torah so that we can conclude it on Parashat Acharei Mot, the Yahrzeit of Rav Lichtenstein.
When we heard the bitter news, we cried. Father has died. It is appropriate for us, Talmidim, to speak of Rav Lichtenstein as father in the same manner that Elisha spoke of Eliyahu HaNavi upon the latter’s departure from this world, “Avi Avi Rechev Yisrael UFarashav” (II Melachim 2:12). Rav Aharon was more than a Rebbe to us; he was a powerful father figure. We feel as if we lost a father, a revered father.
I know from firsthand experience that Rav Lichtenstein regarded his Talmidim as his children. In 1993, after receiving written authorization to administer Gittin from Hacham Ovadia Yosef zt”l and, Yibadeil LeChayim Aruchim, Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, I immediately traveled to Rav Lichtenstein’s home (at that time in the Katamon section of Yerushalayim) to show him the Haskamot. Rav Lichtenstein read the documents and remarked, “I feel like a proud parent.”
It is with great trepidation that I approach the task of eulogizing our great Rebbe, HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l. Delivering a proper Hespeid for any Jew is an awesome responsibility. The Midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 12:13) records that none other than the Malachim are charged by Hashem with the mission of listening to a deceased person’s Hespeid and reporting its contents to the Creator! Moreover, the Gemara (Shabbat 105b) records that “One who is indolent in eulogizing a Talmid Chacham deserves to be buried alive.”
This is ever so more the case with regard to our beloved Rebbe, Rav Lichtenstein. Rav Lichtenstein was adamant about the necessity of delivering a proper Hespeid. Rav Lichtenstein, in November of 1985, conveyed at a convention of the Orthodox Union his deep upset upon hearing the Hespeidim delivered in honor of Rav Aharon Kotler after his death in 1962. Rav Lichtenstein bitterly complained that other than Mr. Irving Bunim, each speaker simply repeated the same mantra of how learned Rav Kotler was – how saintly he was, and how devoted to his learning he was – without noting any of the unique characteristics of the great man. It was very rare to see Rav Lichtenstein get angry. However, on this occasion, there was a rare flash of anger at the failure to properly evaluate someone who made such an enormous contribution to Klal Yisrael, such as Rav Kotler.
As such, I humbly present my thoughts about Rav Lichtenstein zt”l and hope to add something substantial and significant to the many speeches delivered in his honor.
A Powerful Role Model
Although I never heard Rav Lichtenstein express this point, I strongly sense that Rav Lichtenstein felt a very deep responsibility to serve as a proper role model. He knew that everyone in our community admired him and looked to him for guidance and leadership. Rav Aharon rose to the occasion and served as quite the example in a stunning variety of ways. There are at least fifteen points of light that Rav Lichtenstein shined upon the world:
1. Developing a Relationship with Hashem – In his Shiurim, talks, writings and personal demeanor, Rav Lichtenstein showed us how to forge a deep and meaningful relationship with Hashem. One could learn how to Daven simply by watching Rav Lichtenstein Daven. Moreover, Rav Lichtenstein taught us how to seek the Ribbono Shel Olam beyond the conventional arenas of Tefillah, Talmud Torah and Mitzvah performance. During a question and answer session with North American Talmidim at Yeshivat Har Etzion, Rav Lichtenstein described encountering the Divine when boarding a bus and watching children play in a park at dusk. A most stunning revelation, though, is Rav Aharon’s poignant discussion of Emunah (in an impactful essay entitled “The Source of Faith is Faith Itself,” Jewish Action 1992, reprinted in Leaves of Faith 2:363-367), in which he writes that “The greatest source of faith, however, has been the Ribbono Shel Olam Himself.”
2. Hatmadah – Rav Leibel Dulitz, a classmate of Rav Lichtenstein, recalled (during a Shiur he delivered at Yeshiva University High School for Boys in 1978) Rav Aharon’s learning regimen during the years he studied at Yeshiva College. He recounted that Rav Lichtenstein would learn in the Beit Midrash until 1:30 a.m. and then retire to his room and devote two hours to his university studies. On Thursday evenings, though, Rav Lichtenstein would learn until 4:30 a.m. and forego attending to his secular studies that evening. Rav Yitzchak Lichtenstein shared in the Hespeid he delivered in honor of his father that he never saw his father not engaged in some productive activity.
3. Dikduk BeMitzvot – We Talmidim witnessed Rav Aharon’s passionate adherence to Mitzvot. We saw the sacrifice he made to adhere to the stringent opinions regarding Chadash and city Eiruvin. We saw how extraordinarily careful Rav Lichtenstein was to give a significant contribution to each and every Ani he encountered. A vivid description of Rav Lichtenstein’s devotion to Mitzvot is presented by Rav Lichtenstein’s Talmid, Rav Shmuel David, in his collection of responsa entitled “She’eilot UTeshuvot MeiRosh Tzurim” (20:1). After Rav David presents the various opinions as to whether or not one must dip the bread upon which he recited HaMotzi even during the week, he concludes that it is preferable to make an effort to do so. He writes, “and I have seen Mori V’Rabi Harav Aharon Lichtenstein zealously (‘Tar Harbeih’) arrange for salt to be available before he recites the Bracha of HaMotzi.” A humorous exchange occurred in the first year I learned at Yeshivat Har Etzion that demonstrated Rav Lichtenstein’s deep devotion to Shemirat Mitzvot. Rav Lichtenstein had delivered a beautiful Shiur on Tevilat Keilim on the Motza’ei Shabbat of Parashat Toledot 5742. During this Shiur, Rav Aharon addressed the well-known challenge of immersing electric equipment, such as toasters, in water. Rav Lichtenstein mentioned that he solved this problem in his home by declaring his toaster to be Hefkeir, thereby obviating the requirement to immerse Keilim that one owns. The following Purim, one of the students visiting Rav Lichtenstein’s home unwisely chose (as a Purim prank) to grab the toaster. The next day at Yeshivah, the student presented the toaster (not an inexpensive item by Israeli standards of the time) to Rav Lichtenstein who, in turn, refused to take it. Rav Aharon explained that if he were to accept the toaster, it would indicate that his declaring the toaster Hefkeir was insincere. This week, in preparation for reading Parashat Metzora on Shabbat, we turn our attention to the prohibition of Lashon HaRa. In all of my interactions with Rav Lichtenstein, he never spoke a word of slander. Rav Yitzchak Lichtenstein also remarked that he never heard Rav Aharon utter even a bit of Lashon HaRa. Rav Lichtenstein conveyed that Mitzvah observance truly reflects the Divine Will, to which we must adhere scrupulously.
4. Vast Torah Knowledge – Rav Lichtenstein’s mastery of Torah, especially of the Rishonim that most Yeshivah students do not intensely study (such as Ra’avan and Rabbeinu Yerucham), inspires his Talmidim to strive for high levels of Torah knowledge. Rav Aharon was able to inspire his Talmidim to want to be like him not dissimilar, LeHavdil, to the manner in which youngsters seek to emulate their sports idols. Yet, despite the vast reservoir of Torah information, Rav Lichtenstein bore and presented his knowledge in a modest fashion, never even mildly appearing to be showboating.
5. Modesty – An entire book can and should be written describing Rav Aharon’s genuine and legendary modesty. It is simply stunning how such a great man could be so modest. In a Shiur devoted to the study of Avot DeRabi Natan, Rav Lichtenstein indirectly indicated how he maintained his modesty. He stated that even if one were to develop into a great Talmid Chacham, he should still bear in mind that he pales in comparison to greats such as Rabi Akiva Eiger. One story will suffice to illustrate Rav Aharon’s modesty. Once, two students (one of whom was named Aharon) were passing by in the Yeshivah halls, and one of the students said to the other “Aharon, Yeish Lecha Gafrur,” “Aharon, do you have a match?” Rav Lichtenstein, thinking that the question was addressed to him, responded “Mitzta’eir, Ein Li,” “I am sorry, I do not have one.”
In our next issue, we will, God willing, continue our honoring Rav Lichtenstein zt”l and illustrate ten more areas in which Rav Lichtenstein served as a role model for all.