What My Rabbi’s Death Means to Me

“You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 18:5)

This past Tuesday, April 21, 2015, was the funeral for Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, the dean (Rosh Yeshiva) of the flagship hesder yeshiva in Israel, Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Gush Etzion hills south of Jerusalem.

Greatness comes in many forms. Sometimes it is a person’s charisma that inspires others, sometimes a person’s experience and achievements, and sometimes it is a person’s knowledge. Sitting in the same bet midrash (study hall) as Rabbi Lichtenstein every day, the awe that he inspired emanated from his very being.

He was not overly charismatic – in fact, he was very difficult to understand even when he spoke of the simplest things. His life experience, while certainly impressive (having escaped the Holocaust as a child, earning a Ph.D. in English Literature at Harvard, producing thousands of reverent students around the world, becoming a symbol of religious leadership in Israel and the Diaspora), did not shine through in his day to day encounters with his students.

His knowledge, while unmatched and even unfathomable in scope and depth (he had the ability to engage anyone at any time with regard to any passage of Jewish scripture, law or thought as if he had just finished reading that very same passage just moments before), was on display in his capacity as a teacher and rabbi, but was reserved for those moments when he chose to put it on display. His leadership qualities and landmark opinions, while having influenced the modern Jewish world in a multitude of capacities and on many levels, rarely entered the cocoon of the bet midrash.

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No, it was none of these things that I felt to be the greatest loss when the Rosh Yeshiva passed away. It was the knowledge that the person who to me had achieved the most intimate closeness to God was no longer with us, to inspire those around him to dedicate their lives to self-improvement, to the elimination of the mundane and to the inundation of the holy, to extreme self-awareness and recognition of every minute blemish in order to constantly further their dedication to God.

It is the rarest of experiences when we find ourselves in the presence of a person who we can presume to be a true approximation of what God intended when he created mankind, an embodiment of the verse [Deuteronomy 28:9] “And you shall walk in His ways.”

Our Sages taught the following in regard to this commandment: “Just as He is called “Gracious,” you shall be gracious; Just as He is called “Merciful,” you shall be merciful; Just as He is called “Holy,” you shall be holy.”

This was Rabbi Lichtenstein every day of his life. This week’s Torah portion includes the following verse (Leviticus 18:5): “You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them. I am the Lord.” It is fitting that a man of this nature should leave this world on the week of the reading of this verse, as one would be hard pressed to find another human being who so thoroughly lived God’s commandments in a life of humility and greatness.

May his memory be a blessing and inspiration to us all.