Saturday, December 14, 2019

R. Soloveitchik z”l (the teacher and father-in-law of mori ve-rabi R. Lichtenstein z”l) used those words from the fifth chapter of Shir haShirim to eulogize his uncle, R. Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveitchik, a play on Tanach’s using dod, more commonly translated as uncle, as the word for beloved. But in that Biblical question we find the challenge to any public expression of love or loss: What’s so special about yours?

Much of the answer lies in laying out the beloved’s admired qualities, what made that person special to us. Fortunately, many have already done that for R. Lichtenstein, and the coming days and months, I am sure, will bring many more. He was not taken from us suddenly, and his slow physical decline had the benefits the Midrash on Bereshit ascribes to Ya’akov Avinu’s wish to take ill before he passed away, to give him and his loved ones a chance to say good-bye in all important ways.

With R. Lichtenstein, his family, students, and admirers organized days of Torah study to honor his 75th birthday and his 80th, wrote about him evocatively and insightfully (such as David M. Weinberg’s column in the Jerusalem Post on the occasion of the 80th birthday, Elli Fischer’s article in Mosaic, marking his receipt of the Israel Prize, and the most recent issue of Tradition’s analysis of many of the elements of his thought).

These appreciations rightly note his intellect, remarkable for its capacity to absorb, retain, and organize encyclopedic information, using that to then deduce new categories and new ideas; speak of his humanism, sensitivity, openness, and practicality in trying to improve this world, even while adhering fiercely to the traditional sources of Torah knowledge to which he devoted the bulk of his attention; and, especially, remark on his humility, altruism, concern for others, and basic mentschlichkeit, all expressed in a way that made clear how deeply rooted those qualities were in his personality. With examples to bring it all to life.

For some, that’s well known. If it’s not, the essays I’ve just mentioned, and others, say it better than I could here.  In one sense, that’s what separates our beloved from others.

I suggest there was another element as well. For all that R. Lichtenstein’s students were not a homogeneous group, my sense and experience is that they share the view that had he had even more than his thousands of students, had his reach extended further than it did, we would all be better for it.

That is not unique, and not meant arrogantly, that his was the only way. But read between the lines of the articles, reminiscences, and eulogies, and you’ll hear it, true only of visionary teachers, that he not only taught Torah, he laid out a worldview, an approach to life that was well reasoned, derived from the sources of Jewish tradition, coherent and practical while being idealistic and utopian, that who wouldn’t have gained from sitting at his feet and drinking thirstily of his waters?

Those who knew him have lost a personal teacher, mentor, advisor, a loss that matters to each person who undergoes it, like all loss; adding to our pain, we are confronted with what might have been, with the world that will never be forged but that could have been had only more of us found ways to resonate with, to listen to, and to implement the vision of the world he articulated.

Zeh dodi ve-zeh re’i benot Yerushalayim. This was my beloved and this was my friend, daughters of Jerusalem.

By Rabbi Gidon Rothstein

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