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04/30/2020 11:57:15 PM


Rabbi Yehuda Septimus

A friend of mine, Rabbi Chaim Strauchler, from Shaarei Shomayim Congregation in Toronto, recently wrote the following, about our shared Rebbi, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, ztz"l, whom we so revered.  I share it in its entirety due to its power, its personal resonance for me, and its relevance to this moment in history:
Last Shabbat was the 5th Yahrzeit of my Rebbi and Rosh Yeshiva - Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt"l.  A number of his students gathered on a Zoom call, last week, to share memories of the man who had such a profound influence on our lives. One theme (that we came back to many times) connects to something we – as a society – are all feeling in this moment of crisis: FEAR.

Rav Lichtenstein was an extremely righteous and kind man. Despite this fact, we – his students – experienced a constant anxiety (bordering on trepidation) in his presence. At this stage in our lives, we ponder this inexplicable reaction to our teacher (which we held long after the age of seventeen - when most of us first met him). Why did Rav Aharon spark such fear in his adoring student's hearts?

A number of theories were advanced on our call; I'd like to offer my own.  We have all grown up in a society that makes assumptions about life goals.  We are here to be happy.  If we aren't happy, something is wrong.  If we are happy, what could go wrong?  The political, social and economic systems in which we have grown have reinforced these assumptions. We have broadly enjoyed security, peace, and prosperity. We therefore have built within our minds a series of equations that give us a sense of control. If I do this, then I will be OK. If I do not, then I will not be OK.

On Rav Lichtenstein's gravestone, his family inscribed his loadstar – the quintessential description of the good in life.  It was the Torah's label for Moshe Rabbeinu, "Eved Hashem" – servant of God.  Contained within these words is a world vision.  We are not here for ourselves; we are here on a mission. That goal is to serve God.  

Rav Lichtenstein was a genius.  None of us, his students, could compare to his sheer intellectual firepower.  Yet that genius was not his greatness.  Rather, it was his moral intensity and logical clarity, which exploded the lies society had told us about life. The standards that he held himself to religiously and morally were standards that applied (and continue to apply) to us. Those standards are scary.  As God’s servant, Rav Lichtenstein was a conduit to each of us of what servitude to God means. We are not here to please ourselves. We are here to meet God's expectations.

Many lies are being exploded during this world crisis. Mankind is not as powerful as it believed itself to be.  Life demands more of us than the discovery of our own subjectivity.  If we are to reconstruct our world, it will require great courage and much work.  It will require us to move closer to Rav Lichtenstein’s heroic vision for modern man.


I will add one point to Rabbi Strauchler's. 

My memories of Rav Lichtenstein were of someone filled with such boundless energy and such inscrutable sincerity in his service of God that he was hard to comprehend. 

In yeshiva, we had a certain genre of story we liked to tell about Rav Aharon that I like to call the "reverse gadol stories."  For example: "I saw Rav Lichtenstein going down the slide with his grandchildren." "I passed by Rav Lichtenstein's house, and he was taking out the garbage." "I heard Rav Lichtenstein answer the payphone in yeshiva, 'Aharon speaking.'"  

Instead of the typical hagiographic gadol story meant to put the gadol on a pedestal, as someone beyond the normal human realm, these stories weren’t stories at all.  They were simply reminders to ourselves that this person who was so great was actually human. That if we tried hard enough, maybe we could attain some of his sanctity.  

It is during such unprecedented moments in history that we turn to people of greatness for wisdom and perspective. And it is during such times that we miss so dearly those who would have helped guide us through difficulty yet who are no longer here to do so. Our losses as a people during this time have been profound.  But equally profound have been all of the small things we have begun to appreciate about this world in which we live.  During this period of elemental fear, we need to remember that there is a loftier fear for which we must yearn. Just remembering someone of Rav Lichtenstein's stature is a reminder of that fear. 

The period of Sefirat HaOmer in which we stand right now is a perfect time to work on this higher fear of God that suffuses the Torah and its observance.  In these days of elemental fear, may we all succeed in reaching such levels of higher, loftier fear.


By: Rabbi Yehuda Septimus

Sun, June 23 2024 17 Sivan 5784