In honor of the Rav’s Yahrtzeit, which is observed during Chol HaMoed Pesach, this article will discuss my experiences as the Rav’s assistant (Shamash) from 1983-1985. This article was published in Yeshiva College’s newspaper the Commentator earlier this year and I thank the editors for encouraging me to share these precious moments with the broader Jewish community.
What would you do if you were eighty years old, highly accomplished in your field and suffering from a debilitating illness? Most people would not dedicate themselves to hard work and a demanding schedule, having already accomplished their mission in life. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, though he had already established his fame and special place in Jewish history, strove vigorously to maximize his contribution to Am Yisrael even at age eighty and beyond, despite the profound challenges and limitations imposed on him by serious illness.
Many high-quality books and essays have been printed that explore the many facets of this legendary figure. However, I have yet to see a discussion focusing on the heroism and courage displayed by the Rav during his last years serving as a Rebbe at Yeshiva University. I was privileged to witness this heroism, having studied in the Rav’s Shiur from 1983-1985 and having served as a Shamash (assistant) to the Rav during this period of time, the last two and a half years that he graced the halls and streets of the YU community. I hope our discussion will call attention to yet another aspect of the Rav’s legacy to YU specifically and to Am Yisrael in general.
In a public Shiur delivered at YU in 1981, the Rav (seventy eight years of age at the time) cited a verse Tehillim (90:10) which proclaims, “The days of our years are seventy years, and if with courage, eighty years.” The Rav explained that the challenge facing one who has reached age eighty is whether he can muster the courage to believe that he remains a worthwhile human being who still can contribute. It was obvious to anyone who was close to the Rav during his last years at YU that he met this challenge with a dignified and fierce determination.
It was heartbreaking to watch Rav Soloveitchik struggle to board an airplane or enter and leave a car, and it was painfully obvious that it would have been so much more comfortable for the Rav to forego his weekly commute from Boston to New York to deliver Shiur at Yeshiva. The Rav, though, was determined to continue contributing to Am Yisrael. I asked the senior Shamash why the Rav, who needed two students to help him walk across Amsterdam Avenue from his first floor apartment in the Morgenstern dormitory to his Shiur room in Furst Hall, did not prefer to have a professional nurse assist him through his daily routines instead of the cadre of YU Talmidim who served as his assistants. Wouldn’t he receive a superior level of care, not to mention a greater measure of privacy? I was told that the Rav strongly preferred Talmidim since he very much wanted the company of those with whom he could learn and discuss Torah. In retrospect, having seen each of the Rav’s assistants emerge as an important rabbi and/or Jewish educator, I realize that the Rav also wanted to have the opportunity to develop a relationship with his Talmidim that would inspire them to reach great heights within Am Yisrael. Indeed, every one of the Shamashim took a bit of the Rav’s personality and greatness and was propelled spiritually by the close encounter with this great man, whose dedication to Torah and Am Yisrael radiated from every fiber of his being.
The Rav’s modesty was astounding. His apartment in the Morgenstern dormitory was the height of simplicity, and he treated every visitor, young or old, with the utmost respect. There was not a trace of arrogance in his personality, in accordance with the Rambam’s teaching in Hilchot Deiot that even a bit of haughtiness is intolerable. I recall that one Thursday in the fall of 1983, Rav Ovadia Yosef visited YU and was driven by members of the Sephardic community in a beautiful black limousine, as is appropriate for a Torah giant. The Rav, on the other hand, was more than content to be driven to LaGuardia Airport in a Talmid’s battered, fifteen year old car. The Rav’s assistants were deeply moved by his breathtaking humility to the extent that each finds arrogance distasteful. Each thinks to himself that if the Rav, one of the greatest figures in Jewish history, exhibited no arrogance, what right does anyone of them have to be arrogant? This is not to say that the Rav did not dress in a dignified, albeit modest, fashion. On the contrary, the Rav once gently chided me that I should dress in a more formal and dignified manner.
Despite the infirmities of old age, the Rav indefatigably pursued David HaMelech’s challenge to “Sing to Hashem a new song” (Tehillim 144:9). I was astonished when the Rav announced, a few weeks before Pesach in 1984, that he would devote his coming Shiurim to topics related to Korban Pesach, a topic he said that he had not yet delivered Shiurim on. Surely the students would have been satisfied to hear Rav Soloveitchik deliver Divrei Torah on Pesach similar to those he had delivered in his prior forty years of lecturing at Yeshiva. The Rav, on the other hand, had different plans. There were new trails to blaze and frontiers to conquer even at age eighty. One day in November of 1984, one of the Talmidim pointed out to the Rav that in the previous day’s Shiur, he had explained a passage in the Rambam in a different manner than he had explained the same passage that day. Without batting an eyelash, the Rav responded, “Never mind what I said yesterday.” For the Rav, the Torah was forever fresh, as if it had been presented by Hashem to His people anew every single day (see Rashi to Devarim 6:6).
In the midst of privately discussing the propriety of purchasing a German-manufactured automobile, the Rav displayed one of the innumerous facets of his greatness. He said to me that perhaps he had erred when he strongly urged Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion not to accept reparations from the West German government. Israel’s politicians and citizens were embroiled in a searing debate in the 1950’s about whether to accept compensation from the German government for the Nazi atrocities. In a relatively rare public expression of his views regarding matters of public policy, the Rav at that time expressed his forceful opposition to accepting the proposed reparations. Astonishingly, thirty years later, the Rav said to me that perhaps history had proved him wrong, as the State of Israel would not have developed economically as it had done in the past three decades had it not accepted money from the West Germans. How many older people have the courage and integrity to state, upon reflection, that they regard a major position that they fought for in years gone by as mistaken?
The Rav did not simply repeat assertions he had made in his earlier years. For example, in the course of preparing an article for Yeshiva University’s publication HaMevaser, I asked the Rav (in September 1985) to confirm the report of his position that one does not recite Birkat HaGomel upon the completion of a plane ride (see my article on this subject available at www.koltorah.org). The Rav confirmed that this had been his position. However, he told me that he had just modified his position and believed that one should recite this Berachah upon safely returning from a very long distance airplane trip, such as from Israel to the United States. The Rav explained that in the wake of the Achille Lauro hijacking, “We have returned to the age of the pirates.”
The Rav was a consummate gentleman. Once, a Shamash unknowingly granted an interview with the Rav to a Christian missionary. The Shamash related to me that the Rav avoided debate and instead calmly and politely told the missionary that he did not share his views. When the Shamash realized his error, he quickly escorted the missionary out of the Rav’s apartment. On another occasion, a group of Rabbanim from Long Island met with the Rav regarding a quandary they had regarding an Eiruv they were trying to establish. When a Halachic solution could not be found, one of the younger Rabbanim in the group asked if it would be appropriate to place a Lechi (portion of the Eiruv) on someone’s property without permission. The Rav emphatically insisted that the Eiruv not be created in such a manner.
Interactions with the Rav were an encounter with history-in-the-making. Although the Rav was famous for his long-held reluctance to publish his Shiurim and lectures, towards the end of his career he relented and oversaw the publication of the Yahrtzeit Shiurim he had delivered in memory of his father, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik. The Rav, with the assistance of a number of his leading Talmidim, published the now-classic two volumes entitled Shiurim LeZeicher Abba Mori z”l. I had the privilege of witnessing my other primary Rebbe, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein Shlita, prepare the second volume of this great work together with the Rav, his father-in-law. I was also privileged to see the Rav’s daughter, Dr. Tova Lichtenstein, present the second volume to the Rav, and I witnessed the deep satisfaction experienced by the Rav upon seeing the publication of his great work. In conversation, the Rav told me that in the Shiurim LeZeicher Abba Mori z”l he sought to create in new genre in Torah literature, that of Halachic prose. He told me that he sought to emulate the genre of scientists who present sophisticated science to a lay audience in a manner which may be understood even by a non-scientist. In the “Shiurim,” the Rav said he tried to present sophisticated Torah ideas in a manner that could be understood even by those who are not high-level Talmidei Chachamim. The Rav added, with a charming smile and twinkle in his eye, that he believed he had succeeded in accomplishing this goal.
Although not privileged to hear the Rav’s Shiurim in his prime years, I nevertheless prospered from interacting with him during his last years at Yeshiva. The Rav had a huge impact on all those who worked with him even in his last years, especially with the Shamashim with whom he developed a deep, personal connection. We were witness to a giant of indomitable will who was a role model in every aspect of life. He bestowed some of his majestic personality upon his Talmidim, which we in turn seek to impart to our Talmidim as well.