Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a tribute.

"A couple of years after we moved to Yerushalyim, I was once walking with my family in the Beit Yisrael neighborhood, where R. Isser Zalman Meltzer used to live. For the most part, it consists of narrow alleys. We came to a corner, and found a merchant stuck there with his car. The question came up as to how to help him; it was a clear case of perika u-te’ina (helping one load or unload his burden). There were some youngsters there from the neighborhood, who judging by their looks were probably ten or eleven years old. They saw that this merchant was not wearing a kippa. So they began a whole pilpul, based on the gemara in Pesachim (113b), about whether they should help him or not. They said, ‘If he walks about bareheaded, presumably he doesn’t separate terumot u-ma’asrot, so he is suspect of eating and selling untithed produce…..’” I wrote R. Soloveitchik a letter at that time, and told him of the incident. I ended with the comment, ‘Children of the age from our camp would not have known the gemara, but they would have helped him.’ My feeling then was: Why, Ribbon shel Olam, must this be our choice? Can’t we find children who would have helped him and still know the gemara? Do we have to choose? I hope not; I believe not. If forced to choose, however, I would have no doubts where my loyalties lie: I prefer that they know less gemara but help him." (From the book Ohr Panecha)
h/t Ysoscher Katz

I only met Rav Aharon once.  It was ephemeral.  That week, he was the scholar-in-residence at Yeshiva University.  I was waitering that Shabbat.  After Friday night's prayers, one waiter would stand as a "greeter" by the entrance to the Fuhrman Dining Hall.  That week, I was chosen to be greeter.  

I was standing there, wishing good Shabbos to everyone coming in.  Suddenly, I heard a deep, firm voice calmly wishing me "Good Shabbos."  I looked up, and there was Rav Aharon, with a dulcet, amiable smile on his face.  

I'm not sure why this moment left such an impression on me.  I'm guessing it's because up to that point, I had only ever seen Rav Aharon standing at a podium delivering lectures.  I could never follow his lectures.  One lecture, which he delivered at the Gruss Kollel in Israel as a tribute to his teacher, Rav JB Soloveichik, completely stupefied me.  He had at least 10 books in front of him, and he was dexterously utilizing all of them to create a staggering lecture.  Around 5 minutes in, he lost me.  The times after that, any time I heard him speak, I could tell he was an extremely intelligent, articulate man whose reputation preceded him.  However, I was not erudite enough to grasp his lectures.

The man standing in front of me at that moment was a completely different man.  He was not a lofty, prodigious scholar blinding me with hermeneutics.  He was a kindly, amiable, tranquil sexagenerian.  He just seemed so human at that moment.  If I didn't know he was the great Rabbi Aharon Licthestein, PhD, I would probably have thought he was somebody's Zeide.  

It is stories like the one above that make me wish I knew more about Rav Aharon.  For many years, I was told "derech eretz kodma l'torah" (lit. the way of the world comes before the bible, connotation "being a good person is more important than pleasing God.")  Unfortunately, many people I was raised with were very lax in that.  I have heard other Jews saying all kinds of crass statements such as "it's okay to steal from a non-Jew", "it is forbidden to shop in a non-Jew's store", or even "if a non-Jew loses his/her wallet, it is forbidden to return it."  All of which I find reprehensible.

AFAIK, all the above are not considered normative Jewish law (and I hope they are not).  And so, it is for this reason that I think we need more leaders like Rav Aharon, who not only say that being a good person is important, but also embody it!

To Rav Aharon.  May your light shine on forever.