“Va-yidom Aharon” – “And Aharon was silent” (Vayikra 10:3). While these words, read this past Shabbat, describe the biblical Aharon’s reaction to the death of his two sons and remains the consummate response to the mystery of death and tragedy, they take on an additional and somber meaning in mourning the passing of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zecher tzaddik li’vracha (may the memory of the righteous be a blessing).
As difficult as it is to describe the attributes of our great teacher, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, we, the thousands of students of Rav Lichtenstein, must attempt to bring his teachings and legacy to the general public.
Lengthy essays have been and will be penned in his honor and memory, describing his supreme intellectual gifts and mastery of the entire corpus of Torah knowledge, his fluency in all facets of Western culture, especially English literature and philosophy, and his unparalleled ability to fuse the two. But I want to focus on his overall personality, which encapsulates everything that he accomplished and stood for. He was, in perhaps the greatest accolade that Judaism can bestow, an ish emet, literally a man of truth, but a phrase that also connotes unswerving morality, authenticity, decency and virtue.
We are often disappointed by our leaders, including religious ones, especially when their actions do not match their prescriptive words. For anyone who spent any time with Rav Lichtenstein, such inconsistency is impossible to imagine. He held himself to an extraordinary standard, whether that meant serving in the Israeli army even though he was exempted due to his family situation and age when he made aliyah, or his going straight from the airport after an 11-hour flight to give a two- hour advanced lecture, or running (literally) from his classes in Yeshivat Har Etzion to visit his students in the army, giving them a much needed break from their physical rigors.
His devotion to his parents, were it not actually true, would be legendary. One of the most awe-inspiring experiences for his students was watching him care for his elderly father, blind and hard of hearing, towards the end of his life. Rav Lichtenstein would say each word of prayer into his father’s ear, and when it came time for the silent prayer, he would lead his father on a long, slow walk out of the Yeshiva sanctuary in order not to disrupt his students’ prayers when he loudly intoned each word for his father’s benefit. What a message this sent to us as we silently watched this living embodiment of the beauty of Judaism – one of the greatest Torah scholars sacrificing his own prayer for the benefit of both his father and his students.
His moral vision was truly inspiring. He constantly reminded us that Judaism demands excellence both in our relationship with God and mankind. While others may have felt triumphant in Orthodoxy’s recent seeming gains and other denominations’ losses, Rav Lichtenstein keenly lamented their depletion, teaching us to love and feel for all Jews. While he eschewed labels, he cultivated lifelong relationships with others, no matter how different their views, to the left or right, were from his, and reminded us that philosophical differences should not be a barrier to unity for all Jews. He challenged his students whom he felt could inspire others, to become rabbis and teachers, paraphrasing and bringing to life Mordechai’s challenge to Esther when she was wary of appearing before Achashverosh, that we must sacrifice and risk our personal comfort to give back to the community.
His exemplary qualities shone in the classroom, which for most students, especially newer ones struggling to follow his dialectical approach and lofty language, was a daunting place. When he saw a student struggling to answer his questions, he would either make the question simpler or call upon another student to save the original student from embarrassment. Rav Lichtenstein’s own humility was unparalleled. In an almost unheard of arrangement, he harmoniously shared the duties as head of the yeshiva for some 40 years with another Torah giant, Rav Yehuda Amital zt’l, with both exemplifying on a daily basis that ego has no place in the worship of God and leadership of His people. He avoided all the trappings that leaders often receive, not allowing the yeshiva to replace his old car or put him in business class on flights, as he truly saw himself as God’s servant, who could live simply and happily.
While he implored us to reach, in Browning’s words, beyond our grasp and achieve higher levels of excellence in all facets of our lives, he bestrode, to quote a favorite passage of his from Julius Caesar, “the narrow world like a Colossus,” bestowing upon us a vision of what tremendous discipline and devotion can accomplish. This ish emet embodied the true idea of a righteous person, of someone wholly and humbly committed to others and their needs, living beyond himself, and inspired by his faith and his almost tangible relationship with God. In an age of cynicism and moral relativism, Rav Lichtenstein taught us to winnow away the chaff and strive for realistic virtue, guided by the eternal and compassionate messages of our precious Torah. While it is hard to imagine anyone attaining his all-around genius and moral excellence, he has left us a lifetime of inspiring lessons and a model of consistent goodness and purity that will hopefully continue to inspire us for generations to come.
Maury Kelman is a rabbi and attorney who attended Yeshivat Har Etzion and the Gruss Institute of Yeshiva University.