Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Mark of a True Gadol

I have been asked by many to write more about my experiences with various historical figures I have encountered. This request always brings me back to my Rebbe, Rav Aaron Soloveichik. When he was Niftar, I wrote a eulogy for him from which I gleaned this post. I thought I would share some memories of him that illustrates why he was a Gadol and why others today do not seem to measure up.

His knowledge of Torah, his Bikius in Shas and Poskim had few peers. His Shiurim provided great clarity. It was pointed out by R. Aaron’s son, R. Moshe Soloveichik, during Rav Aaron's Hespid that R. Moshe Feinstein considered R. Aaron one of the Gaonei HaDor. It was reiterated by his son-in-law, R. Rapahel Marcus, who read from what I believe was the Smicha document which R. Moshe Feinstien issued to R. Aaron. It should be noted that this statement was made at a time when the Brisker Rav was still alive, as was, The Chazon Ish, Rav Aaron Kotler, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky and his brother, R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. I will never forget that Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, flew into Chicago for the sole purpose of being Maspid Shloshim at Yeshivas Brisk for a man whom he considered to be his own Rebbe. He told us that it was Rav Aaron who taught him how to learn a Rambam.

His Hashkafa was one which encompassed all of Torah and an appreciation for Mada which he had espoused to all of his Talmidim. He could quote with equal ease from the Rambam and R. Chaim as he could from Victor Hugo and often did so as the occasion called for it. He never shied away from his beliefs even when they were unpopular. Rav Aaron believed in engagement with society and that Kiddush HaShem meant not only for Klal Israel but even the Umos HaOlam. One of the clearest memories I have is when R. Aaron spoke to as full Beis HaMedrash of Talmidim, faculty, and Baal HaBatim condemning the Viet Nam War as immoral and condemning then President Nixon. This... at a time when it was not yet popular to do so, infuriating many of the mainstream who supported the war at that time. How proud I was of my Rebbe, my Rosh HaYeshiva.

His Hashkafa forms the basis for my own Hashkafa. He was a man who stood up for Emes without regard of the consequences to himself. It did not matter who or how great the numbers of individuals who opposed him. He was a Rodef Sholom, willing to go to the greatest of lengths to avoid Machlokes. But when it came to Emes, he was a Kanoi on its behalf, never flinching. This thought was expressed by the Maspidim on the day of his funeral and at his Shloshim, who retold of episodes in his life which caused him so much Agmus Nefesh. These were events many of which I participated in, as a Talmid and as an admirer.

I want to relate one personal story which I believe illustrates the mark of a true Gadol. When my father had his bladder removed shortly before his death he needed to have a bag attached to his ureter which collected urine and had to be emptied occasionally. There was an issue of Tumah. My father wanted to know if there was any problem of saying Tefillos and wearing Teffilin, with a bag full of urine. Rav Aaron Paskin'd that it was no problem. Since it did not pass through the Eiver it did not become Tameh.

But he told me that there was another issue regarding Shabbos, namely the issue of carrying the bag of urine in Reshus HaRabim. So I immediately asked him to Paskin. He told me that he didn’t know those Halachos so well and that I should ask someone else. I was puzzled by the response. How could this Baki in Poskim not know? But I did as he asked. And was given a Heter for my father and advice as to what my father needed do to avoid Yitziah, carrying on Shabbos.

Much later upon reflection, I realized of course that Rav Aaron knew what the Psak was. But he did not want to Paskin for my father. Rav Aaron’s Shittah is vary Chamur on Shabbos and his Psak would’ve created a great hardship for my father who loved people and loved going to Shul... confining him to a virtual prison in his own house every Shabbos for the rest of his life. How ironic that after his stroke, many years before my Sheila, Rav Aaron was exactly so confined. But he knew other Poskim were more Mekil and told me to look elsewhere, And lest I press him to give me his own Psak, he simply told me that he didn’t know.

This is the mark of a true Gadol. Most Poskim when asked a Sheila will Paskin L’Chumra if this is their Shita, even when they know there are those who will Paskin L’Kula, creating hardships in some cases. But R. Aaron was an Ohaiv Es HaBrios and tremendous Bal Chesed who always put his own Kavod Last.

Klal Israel has lost a great leader, a member of a generation of great leaders who are all irreplaceable.