When the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, died the Torah states (Lev. 10, 3): Then Moses said to Aaron: ‘This is what God has said: I will be sanctified through those that are near to Me, and I will be glorified before the entire nation.’ And Aaron was silent (וידום אהרון). Why was Aaron silent?
The question arose this morning, as I made a shiva call to the family of Rav Moshe Twersky זצ”ל הי”ד. I mentioned to a member of the family, that I wish I had something smart to say, at such an excruciatingly painful time. The response was: ‘VaYidom Aharon–Aaron was silent. I don’t think Aaron was silent because he was such a Hakham,’ they said. ‘I think it’s because there are situations in which there is absolutely nothing that one can say.’ And, that is precisely what Jeremiah said (Lam. 3, 28): ‘Let him sit alone and keep silent, for He has laid it upon him.’
As I was leaving, it occurred to me that while silence might be the appropriate response for those who knew, loved and admired R. Moshe, it’s not the only response.My reason for thinking derived from a lecture that Mori ve-Rabi R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt’l, R. Moshe’s grandfather, almost forty years ago.
It was Saturday Night, following Shabbat Parshat Hayye Sarah. The Rav drew our attention to second verse in the Parsha (Gen. 23, 2): ‘Abraham came to eulogize Sarah, and to weep for her.’ Abraham’s behavior, he observed, is unusual. Normally, when a person dies, those who mourn for him or her are overwhelmed with grief and can do nothing but cry from the depth of their souls. Only after time passes, can one have the perspective that is necessary for eulogizing a person. Hence, the Rav observed, the practice was always to hold eulogies only at the end of the thirty days of mourning.
Why, then, did Abraham deviate from the normal way of things?
He did so, Rav Soloveitchik explained, because Sarah was not just his beautiful wife. She was the Matriarch of the nascent Jewish People. She was an equal (and, more than equal) part of creating the ‘Covenantal Community,’ dedicated to the worship of the One God, out of which the Jewish People emerged. However, she was an exceedingly modest person. Few really knew who she really was. They did not know of the extent of her activities. They did not know, as Rashi observed, just how many people she brought under the wings of the Divine Presence.
Abraham felt that he had to inform people who his remarkable wife was. He had to set aside his overwhelming grief, and tell them how noble and devoted, God fearing and compassionate, Sarah was. He had to let the world know so that others would understand not what Abraham and Isaac had lost, but what they themselves had lost. Only once he had done that could he allow the pain and grief that churned within him to explode. Only then, did Abraham break down in tears and weep.
In that respect, I would like to share what I knew about R. Moshe Twersky.
While I have known R. Moshe Twersky zt’l since we were teenagers, we were never close. Moreover, we had not had any regular contact in almost thirty years. However, there were many years in which our lives’ trajectories overlapped and we interacted frequently. Those interactions gave me both an insight into who he was, and anticipated who he would become.
Much like his father, my teacher Rabbi Professor Yitzhak Twersky, R. Moshe was extremely reserved. Yet, my earliest memory of him is rooted in a very unreserved circumstance. One of the highlights of the year for the Boston Jewish Community was Simhat Torah night in Brookline. Jews from all over the Metropolitan area would come to dance at the two Hassidic synagogues in the area, that of the Bostoner Rebbe and that of the Talner Rebbe, presided over by R. Meshullam Zushya Twersky זצ”ל. Those ‘in the know,’ knew that there was something beyond unique about Haqafot at the Talner’s. The intensity of the spirit and the dignity of the dancing were indescribable. By the time I started attending, the Rebbe was ill, and the synagogue was presided over by his son, Professor Twersky. His sons, R. Moshe and ייבלחטו”א R. Mayer, managed the dancing. I can still remember R. Moshe, with a smile on his face, pushing people into the concentric circles that filled the small shtiebel. His smile revealed the intense purity of his Avodat HaShem (Service of God), something that would be much remarked in the coming years.
Early on, it became obvious to all of us who studied with Rav Soloveitchik, that Moshe was destined for greatness in Torah, and that the Rav was dedicated to cultivating his obvious gifts. His devotion to learning became most evident to me, though, in the mid-1970’s. At the time, I was living in Cambridge to pursue my doctorate with Professor Twersky at Harvard. R. Moshe was completing a BA there. It would be an understatement to say that he not enthused about this. His heart and soul were totally absorbed with traditional Torah Study. However, he was also a devoted son. Since his parents desired that he get a college degree, he did so and superlatively. What was incredible, though, was how he organized his ‘college time.’ In between classes, he had round the clock learning sessions with friends at Harvard and MIT. His apartment often had the feel of a Bet Midrash. On Thursday nights, I studied with one of his roommates into the wee hours of the morning. R. Moshe, always deep into his own learning, would unhesitatingly answer any and all questions we might pose. His style was terse, but gracious. It was clear that he was not only becoming a tremendous scholar. He was also marked to be a remarkable, inspiring teacher.
Finally, R. Moshe was a person of incredible integrity. He was, to invoke the image coined by his grandfather, Halakhic Man. I once happened to be in Rav Soloveitchik’s apartment, waiting to meet with him. In the ante-chamber, R. Moshe was deep in discussion with his dear friend and Havruta, R. Chaim Ilson. I thought they were discussing some abstruse halakhic issue. I soon discovered that they were trying to determine what should be done with an item that had been misplaced and found by one of them. The discussion was on the highest level of Talmudic analysis. The subtext was just as impressive: what is the most correct action vis-a-vis the owner. Now the item was not a very valuable one. I’m not sure whether the owner actually missed it. What was important was the intensity of the lesson that Rabbis Twersky and Ilson conveyed. The Torah is the only guide to Life. Only deep understanding thereof can provide that guidance. There are no half measures in one’s service of God. One must fulfill all of one’s obligations to both God and Man.
The many tributes that have emerged this week, from friends and disciples alike, confirm all of the traits that R. Moshe Twersky evinced so long ago. As a person who lacked facon, too few were aware of the greatness that passed among them. Hence, those who did have the privilege are duty bound to do so (as here). In doing so, they will be fulfilling Abraham’s mandate, and that which Moses told Aaron (Lev. 10, 6): ‘And let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the Fire which God has kindled.’