He sometimes came on Friday, at the end of the school day and week, to his school to chat with the kids. He had a long gray beard but talked to the 6-12-year-olds as if he was one of them. Unassuming. Which is different from trying to show how humble or popular you are. Relaxed, laid-back.
After being bountifully praised as an introduction before speaking at one of his popular forums with the great humble lawyer Rabbi Emanuel Quint OBM, he once replied before the lecture: If I now came up in shorts with a football under my arm, you would not believe a word you just heard about me. Just the fact that I put on long trousers doesn’t mean it’s anyway true.
At another of these forums, he made fun of the introductory praises such: Lyndon Johnson was once lavishly praised. He came up and said: If my father would have been here, he would have loved what you just said. And if my mother would have been here, she would have believed it.
I want to remind us all of things long forgotten. When the last Lubavitcher Rebbe passed away, he was the most well-known Lubavitcher Rabbi left. He would be the next Rebbe, many said. It was not going to happen. For whatever reason, Rav Steinsaltz was not interested. Probably unrelated, he once remarked at a Steinsaltz-Quint forum: Sometimes, you got to do what you got to do–even if no one, even your spouse, understands you.
He unlocked the Talmud for those who don’t know Aramaic and are not trained in the discourse and vocabulary of the Sages. He translated the text and explained it. But he did not present all the breadth and depth of all commentaries and all of the scope of the Talmudic discussions. He did something much harder. He pointed out the essence. To do that, you must know and really understand all of it. He was a master teacher. Goethe already wrote: Only in conciseness the master [really] shows himself.
In the beginning, his Talmud presentation was trashed in Chareidic circles. I once brought his overview volume to my Chareidic yeshivah and the Talmud teacher froze from fear when he saw that. I told him: It’s not our Tractate, it’s his overview. He visibly relaxed. And while we were learning in pairs, he asked if he could have a look. After the lesson, he returned the book to me and said: It’s really excellent. The success of his work was undeniable. So, the only option there was was to compete with him. His work has caused the Chareidic ArtScroll translation of the Talmud.
At a fundraiser, I once heard him say: So many are busy with explaining that one should say [in the Shema’] tizzkeru and not tisskeru, while millions of Jews don’t know what is Shema’ Yisrael or Shabbat candles. We must prioritize the essence before spending so much time on detail.
His eyes often twinkled, looked amused. There was something naughty in them when he spoke. While his whole body said: relax already. Keep that in mind when you read his works or about his person. May his memory be for a blessing. May the One Who is everywhere comfort his family, friends, and generations of students amidst those who mourn Zion and Jerusalem.
We know that, while the wicked seem dead while alive, the saintly only really come to life after they departed. Be ready for an uptick in the sales and learning from the great schoolmaster whose voice we’ll miss so much.