On Monday evening, November 12, 2010, a large crowd gathered in an exquisite ballroom in New York City to celebrate my beloved mentor, world-scholar, Rabbi Steinsaltz’s magnum opus, his monumental translation and commentary of the entire Talmud, which he had worked on for 45 years.
Toward the end of the evening, Rabbi Steinsaltz walked onto the main stage, and with his characteristic transparency and grace, he shared the following words:
“After I die, I really don’t care whether I will go to heaven or to hell. I also do not care at all about what will be written on my tombstone. All I care about is whether I have been able to touch people throughout my lifetime, and cause them to grow more and more each day, in thought, speech, and action, each in their own way.”
I remember that day vividly. And I recall how many of the attendees in that room were overcome with astonishment.
After all, here was a giant of mankind, coined by Time magazine as a “once-in-a-millennium-scholar,” and just today, in a moving tribute by the President of Israel, as the “Rashi of our generation.” Yet, he dedicated his life to the most assimilated, making the entire canon of the Jewish library – the Bible, Mishna, Talmud, Maimonides, Tanya, and more – accessible to each and all, regardless of their level of knowledge and background.
Here was a Rabbi, who appeared to have emerged from the 18th century, dressed with a black hat, a shirt at times disheveled, and a wild beard with streaks of yellow, painted by his signature pipe. Yet his all-encompassing encyclopedic knowledge and uncanny wisdom enabled him to converse with ease with the most brilliant scientist and the smallest of children equally.
But his superhuman capabilities, his rare skills, and his never-ending list of accolades and unparalleled life-achievements, never came in the way of his relentless devotion to fulfill his G-d given purpose, each and every day of his life, to “touch people and cause them to always grow more and more.”
Rabbi Steinsaltz lived by the ideal that life is not about what we are and what we desire for ourselves. Rather, it is about what we are called to do, and what God, and our surroundings, desire from us. This is the way he lived his life – a life that knew no vacation; a life that knew no sleep; a life that knew no taking. At every given moment, in every place, and with every person, Rabbi Steinsaltz sought to give of himself with relentless dedication, and unreserved love.
If only, we could learn from his example, and give and give and give, without ever asking “what’s in it for me?”
If only, we can learn from his death, on how to live truly, meaningfully.
If only, we could open up our minds and our hearts, and enable Rabbi Steinsaltz to touch us so that we, too, can be more, study more, do more, and “grow more and more, in thought, speech, and action, each in our own way.”
Rabbi Steinsaltz who passed away just a few hours ago, will then, undoubtedly, continue to live on and on. In us. Through us. And through our limitless growth of good thoughts, words, and actions.
Surely, we will then merit to also usher in a new era of peace, happiness, and redemption.
For, as Rabbi Steinsaltz once told me: “When one person takes one step ahead, something good happens in our world. But when one million people take one step ahead, the whole world shakes.”