Yesterday, R. Aharon Lichtenstein’s earthly voice fell silent. The world and the Jewish community have lost a giant of Torah, and his thousands and thousands of students have lost a teacher. I can’t quite call myself his student, at least in the direct sense of the word. I spent five weeks at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the summer of 1997, but was not in R. Aharon’s shiur, nor did I have any substantive discussions with him. Nonetheless, his passing has hit me, and I am moved to share some reflections on how not only his Torah, but his institutional impact continues to shape me.
Like about 70 percent of my high school classmates at Ramaz, I did not spend a year studying in Israel between high school and college. The de rigeur nature of that year of study was still taking root at Ramaz at that time and it was presented to me as a kind of spiritual and intellectual inoculation against the dangers of university life. I didn’t bite and went off to university.
As college wore on, my thirst for serious Jewish learning deepened. While I devoted significant time to my own learning, I began to feel the limits of Talmud Torah without an immersive community. As my senior year drew to a close, I had a summer to spare. Seeking an intensive, religious Zionist environment, it seemed there was really only one place to turn: the world of Torah contained in Yeshivat Har Etzion, with R. Yehuda Amital and R. Aharon Lichtenstein at its helm.
That summer was challenging for me in a whole host of ways, but the Beit Midrash there had a profound, deep and lasting impact on me. From almost the first moment I entered it, it seemed the iconic Beit Midrash, and in many ways still seems so. The space was full, energy pulsated through it, and cadre after cadre of students devoted endless hours to Torah. When considering the relative youth of the institution—it was less than 30 years old when I attended—this is nothing short of remarkable. When one considers the broader impact of the yeshiva, its extensive influence is hard to fathom. It is fair to say that alumni of this mekom torah form the backbone of the entire religious Zionist educational elite in Israel.
These facts elicit the question: How? What has been the key to this success?
There are of course many answers and many factors, and I don’t pretend to have a handle on all of them. Others will write more effectively about R. Aharon’s method of learning and those with close relationships will convey their more private moments with this unusual genius. For my brief stint at Yeshivat Har Etzion, a few key elements of R. Aharon’s character and leadership stood out. I offer them in tribute to his memory.
שני מלכים בכתר אחד
On Hullin 60b, R. Shimon b. Pazi reconstructs for us how the Torah goes—in half a sentence—from speaking about the sun and the moon as שני המאורות הגדולים (the two great lights) to המאור הגדול (the great light—the sun) and המאור הקטן (the lesser light—the moon). The moon, originally equal in size to the sun, claims that “two kings cannot share a single crown.” God, seemingly accepting this sad truth of realpolitik, diminishes the moon’s stature, to ensure that there will be only one king in the sky—the sun. The story ends with a twist: God feels guilty for doing this, and each month when the moon renews itself on Rosh Hodesh, God orders a special offering of atonement be brought. This חטאת לה’ aims to expiate God’s error, as it were, in failing to find a way for the sun and the moon to share the heavens equally.
Rosh Hodesh thus includes a monthly elegy for failed efforts at joint leadership. R. Aharon’s passing on the 1st of Iyyar is thus highly fitting, as he and his partner R. Amital modeled what this leadership could and should look like in every institution. One of the most striking things about learning at Yeshivat Har Etzion was the feeling that one was in the presence of these two rashei yeshiva and that their respective strengths—and even their differences of opinion—only strengthened one another and the institution. The realpolitik of R. Shimon b. Pazi’s story is the norm in the world: R. Aharon was able to embody the counter narrative that the story yearns for. Before shared leadership was a buzz word in organizational theory, R. Aharon and R. Amital were living it and showing how it is done. This remains a powerful memory and model for me.
בקרבי אקדש ועל פני כל העם אכבד
When the Biblical Aharon suffers a devastating loss and falls silent, Moshe offers him words of direction, perhaps even comfort, when he says that God is sanctified through those who are closest and receives glory and honor through the entire people. In reflecting on R. Aharon’s passing, these words strike me as particularly fitting.
First, R. Aharon was someone who exuded being close to God. I don’t know how to say it other than that. Even glancing impressions of him, through an intensive shiur klali, a seudah shlishit derashah, a “press conference” where students could ask what was on their mind all pointed to this quality. This was a man not only of deep knowledge, but wisdom, one whose thoughts always seemed deliberate and nuanced. He was deeply sensitive to the challenges of the day and knew how to dispense his opinions selectively and powerfully with extraordinary effectiveness. While R. Aharon was no spiritual guru, one had a sense that הקדוש ברוך הוא was sanctified by having this wise teacher close at hand. בקרבי אקדש.
But most striking to me is how R. Aharon’s channeling of divine wisdom redounded to the benefit of so many others and built such a legacy beyond himself. So many spiritual leaders create a vortex around themselves, inviting others to become increasingly fascinated by the idiosyncracies and preferences of their mentor. Like all gedolim, R. Aharon inspired a near-worshipful reverence among his students. But his force was far more centrifugal than centripedal. He shaped generations of students, rabbis and educators. He leaves behind a body of writing—one that is sure to grow significantly in posthumous form—but more important, he leaves behind legions of people who will continue to do his work.
And he leaves behind admirers from an uncommonly broad spectrum of Jews. In our fractious age, R. Aharon’s passing has managed to elicit mournful reflections that span political parties and various camps in the Israeli public. His impact on American Judaism was more moderate, almost exclusively limited to the Modern Orthodox camp, though more than realize it drink his Torah and hear his perspective from his many students active in the field of education. The true glory of his life’s accomplishments can be felt through the breadth of his impact in so many quarters. על פני כל העם אכבד.
כשהוא חי קולו אחד, כשהוא מת, קולו שבעה
Mishnah Kinnim 3:6 relates to us the paradoxical fact that a ram, in life, makes a single sound with its voice, whereas in death, it makes seven. Its two horns become trumpets, its two thigh bones become flutes, its skin makes a drum, and its innards form the strings of lyres and harps.
R. Aharon’s voice in life was nothing if not one. In fact, this seemingly effortless intellectual and spiritual synthesis was one of the most compelling things about him. He would weave a reference to Lord Byron into a halakhic analysis of abortion, integrate quotes from Shakespeare into divrei torah and otherwise model how all of a person’s learning could be unified into one life perspective. For those who knew him well, this integrity most powerfully revealed itself on the moral plane, such that there was no daylight between his ideals and his lived self. But most striking to me was how calm and unruffled he was. Like Whitman, many great men who contain multitudes self-perceive as living in contradiction and conflict. Indeed, many great educators leverage this feeling of inner conflict to engage their students in their struggles. But R. Aharon’s dialectic always seem to me to eschew drama; instead, he calmly pursued truth, nuance and honesty, all of which, he confidently projected, could be found through the deep pursuit of Torah. And all of this he held together with great grace and power. כשהוא חי, קולו אחד.
In the years ahead, I hope we will see the fruits of his colossal institutional efforts and successes in the symphonic expansion of this unified voice. With his passing, different strands of his approach may more fully flower. As befits him, his legacy is unlikely to simply be a faded carbon copy of himself, but an ongoing centrifugal energy that emerges from the years of investment in students to find their own voices in Torah. I am privileged to know and work with many of them. I also hope that his teaching will transcend some of the boundaries that limited it in life, in particular his aversion to the academic study of Talmud. Where R. Aharon saw the threat of historicism, some of his students are paving the way to finding God’s glory in the Jewish people’s engagement with the divine word across time and space. I hope that in some small way, in keeping with the short time I spent in his presence, I can add my voice to that chorus as well. כשהוא מת קולו שבעה.
I will close with a word of gratitude to Yeshivat Har Etzion and a piece of R. Aharon’s Torah that I still remember 18 years later. Those five weeks I spent in Alon Shvut lit me on fire. I came in with a thirst for Torah; I left famished. In relative terms, I learned a tremendous amount in those five weeks; much more important, I was launched into a decade of intensive learning that I did not know I had in me. As I think about how to inspire my own students, I am continually drawn back, through my own memories and those of my colleagues who spent many years there, to the model of Yeshivat Har Etzion and to the figure of R. Aharon. Their capacity to inspire an intensive journey into Talmud Torah feels unparalleled. While I owe many other more significant debts to other teachers and institutions, I am always struck by the impact of my short time there.
One Shabbat afternoon, at seudah shlishit, R. Aharon spoke about the age-old question of what mortal sin Moshe had committed when striking the rock in order to get water. Why was our storied leader and teacher barred from entering the land for a seemingly minor infraction? After reviewing the many approaches to this question, R. Aharon returned us to Rashi. The text says that Moshe failed to sanctify God through the water, which Rashi explains as his decision to hit the rock as opposed to speak to it. Had he spoken to the rock, the people would have deduced a strong religious message when it burst forth with water: “If a deaf and dumb rock with no needs heeds a command when spoken to by God, all the more so should we!”
R. Aharon explained that this was no mere simple contrast between hitting and speaking. Rather, Rashi was hinting at what was needed in this moment, after 40 years of wandering in the desert. By this point in time, R. Aharon suggested, the people had reached the miracle saturation point. Rocks had been hit before and produced water; every morning, bread descended from the heavens and every evening, quail would mysteriously appear out of the sky to fulfill their cravings. To all of this, the Israelites had become jaded. These sacred miracles had become mundane and commonplace. Moshe’s calling in that moment was not to do a “garden-variety” miracle. Rather, he needed to sanctify God by “kicking it up a notch” and performing a miracle that had not yet happened, producing water through speech alone. The people needed to be awakened from their spiritual slumber and brought back into the presence of God after too many years of becoming inured to the magic of divine immanence. This was a broader message for the spiritual life: There is a constant need to make the miraculous that has become commonplace miraculous again, and there are grave costs if we fail to do so.
This piece of Torah encapsulates for me the magic of R. Aharon’s world of learning at its best. There is nothing more commonplace than Jews learning Torah. It is simply what they do, and it is easy to forget how miraculous this notion is. A transcendent, powerful, commanding God reveals the Torah, but instead of simply demanding compliance, invites human beings to toil in its meaning, to offer their interpretations and to become partners in applying this divine blueprint to the world in which they live. What is more surprising and miraculous than that? But we need leaders who can speak that truth to us, model it for us, and soften the rocks that all too easily form in our spiritual core to release the living waters of Torah. R. Aharon inspired a generation to rediscover the miraculous energy contained in Jewish learning. May we merit using our own voices to convey that infectious excitement to others.
יהי זכרו ברוך