This morning, we lost one of the greatest Torah minds of our generation, Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, PhD in English Literature from Harvard, winner of the Israel Prize for Jewish Literature last Yom HaAtzmaut.
Studying under Rav Aharon and his fellow Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Amital (who passed away in 2010), was one of the greatest privileges of my life. It seems like yesterday that I was sitting in the moadon, the gazebo where he gave shiur, waiting for the lesson to begin, wondering if I prepared the sources properly with my havruta (study partner), trying to anticipate what paths this once-in-a-generation scholar would lead us down.
In particular, I recall how, nineteen years ago, we were studying the third chapter of Ketubot, dealing with some of the most dense, complex and sensitive topics of sexuality in the Talmud. We had reached folio 39a, which at its top deals with the contraceptive device known as mookh. Rav Aharon was ready to go on to the next mishna, but I begged, “Rebbe, what about mookh?” “Ah, mookh,” he replied, and then launched into a meticulous analysis of the varying opinions, the parallel passages, the practical conclusions. All that was at his fingertips.
And yet he never relied on his superior memory. Many a time and oft he could be found at his makom, his modest seat at the front of the beit midrash (study hall), poring over another well-worn volume from his library, taking notes, stacking them one after another. Still it’s a wonder that he managed to get anything done there, as there were often students waiting to consult him on all manner of theological, halakhic and personal matters. Some were teenagers, some were middle-aged, but it was Rav Aharon’s way to help you find the answer (or at least refine the question) for yourself. He never sought to be an oracle; his only goal was to teach, to inspire, to challenge.
And those were challenging times. After Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on 4 November, 1995, Rav Aharon led us to pay our respects amid the long line of mourners. Then he delivered a blistering three-hour tour-de-force of a lecture, demolishing the twisted interpretation of Jewish law that had led a former yeshiva student to murder the prime minister while asking the troubling questions of how such a person could come from our midst. Exactly four months later, on the Fast of Esther, Rav Aharon cut short another lecture when he learned of the Dizengoff Center suicide bombing, saying: “This is the time for prayer, not study.” Five years later, when I was injured in the Sbarro suicide bombing in Jerusalem, Rav Aharon called me personally to check on me.
And now my rebbe is gone. Anything I can utter will pale in comparison to what his learned children and students will say tomorrow. Besides, we don’t eulogize on the New Moon, so instead I will offer a small devar Torah.
Today is 1 Iyar, the first day of the second month. It is a prominent date in the Hebrew calendar. This is how the Book of Numbers, which we’ll start reading later this month, opens:
Lord spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month of the second year after they had left the land of Egypt. He said, “Take a census of the entire assembly of the people of Israel, by clans and families. Record the names of all the men twenty years old and over who are subject to military service in Israel. Enumerate them company by company, you and Aharon.”
Aharon the Priest is explicitly included in this command. And yet when it comes time to count his own tribe, the Levites, the Talmud (Bekhorot 4a) tells us that “Aharon was not in that counting.” Malbim (Num. 3:39) explains that Aharon had a special mission among the Levites: speaking to the firstborn among them.
At this point in the desert, the holy duties of the firstborn are transferred to the Levites (3:6-12), as God says: “Summon the tribe of Levi, and assign them to Aharon the Priest… I have taken the Levites from among the people of Israel in lieu of every firstborn… All the firstborn belong to me, because on the day that I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I separated for myself all the firstborn in Israel.”
The Levites replace the firstborn–but what about the Levites who were firstborn as well? Aharon was to help them “redeem themselves”–since he too was a firstborn Levite! (See Rashi and Tosafot ad loc.). Now, what did this mean practically? These individuals were holy regardless, either as firstborn or as Levites, so why was there a formal ceremony to redeem themselves? This indicates that as important as the “what” and “how” are in Judaism, the “why” and “wherefore” are equally significant. Aharon’s mission was to teach the firstborn Levites to see a new aspect of their identity, to realize the multiple worlds they held in their souls.
If Rav Aharon taught us, his students, anything it was to see the complexity of humanity and the world. There are always multiple facets, and we must strive to reveal them.
May his memory be a blessing.