Thursday, April 12, 2012, the last day of the intermediate days of Passover, is the 19th anniversary of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's being laid to rest. He was as unassuming as he was a huge force and trailblazer for Modern Orthodox Jewry from the mid-30's to the mid 80's of the previous decade. "The Rav," as he was called, carried the mantle for a serious, intellectual and meticulously followed Halacha in modern Orthodoxy for half a century. Don't be put off by the word "modern" – the Rav did not for a moment rule for easy compromises or shortcuts in Jewish law. Of course, he had the authority and gravitas as one of the greatest and most respected Rabbinic leaders of his time, to rule leniently in matters of Jewish practice. But his modernity had much less to do with an easier or relaxed form of Orthodoxy and more with charting a course for serious Jews away from the Chassidic or Hareidi world that demanded a lock-step adherence in dress, study and religious outlook. The Rav, famous for his fiery oratory and brilliant analysis of Talmud and Codes, was to become the spiritual guide of thousands of Rabbinic students at Yeshiva University, many of whom eventually led influential congregations in America and Israel and throughout the world.
I enjoyed and felt highly privileged being one of Rabbi Soloveitchik's student aides for two years while I studied to become a Rabbi at Yeshiva University in upper Manhattan in New York. In the late 1970's and early 80's, the Rav appreciated having students around him during his 3-day-a-week stays at Yeshiva, an arrangement that continued for decades. On Tuesdays, he would fly in from Boston and on Thursdays he would fly back, thus giving him 3 days during which to teach his intensive and filled-to-capacity top Talmud class on the Y.U. campus. During his weekly stays, especially as the Rav got older, it made good sense to take care of this international treasure, and a few trusted Rabbinical students joined members of the Rav's family to provide companionship and assistance when needed. I remember going through a rather rigorous interview with the Rav's son, Rabbi Haym Soloveitchik, who wanted to make sure I understood who his father was, what he meant to Orthodoxy and world Jewry, and how important it was for privacy and confidentiality to be maintained while being with his father nearly 15 hours a week. THAT was a tough interview, not surprising to anyone who knows Rabbi Haym Soloveitchik. I passed, and for two years, for a few hours a day, I stayed with Rabbi Soloveitchik, often bringing in scheduled and surprise visitors, Chief Rabbis of European countries as well as students who asked for a blessing from their mentor prior to their wedding. World famous Jewish leaders, authors and thinkers were welcome guests, sitting on a couch right next to the Rav, who listened with as much enthusiasm as he could muster having just that afternoon delivered a 3 hour Talmud class. The aides often marveled at the Rav's stamina, truly a gift from Heaven to one of his honored angels.
I have about 25 books on my shelf, by and about Rabbi Soloveitchik, and each of them can dissect the intellectual gifts of the Rav. I will leave that to others. I saw and appreciated a personal side of the Rav, quiet, immersed in thought, smiling and animated with visitors, enjoying a simple meal, debating with fellow scholars and administrators of Yeshiva University, and having some memorable chats with his aides who wanted to give him the space he needed yet were all too eager to be engaged with this giant of Torah and a Zeidi figure to me. I had four grandfathers, all of whom passed away before I was born. Rabbi Haym Soloveitchik couldn't have known what being with his father would mean to me when he approved my coming aboard.
Being that the Rav taught three days a week, the apartment did not enjoy his presence most of the week, neither did the YU campus have this huge bolt of electricity on its walkways. Sometimes I would go into the apartment when the Rav was in Boston, to take care of things or just sit quietly away from it all. The empty apartment was really empty when the Rav was not there. About 10 years before the Rav passed away in 1993, Rabbi Soloveitchik was bid farewell by his aides as he left his apartment for the last time, returning to Boston to recover his health. Sadly for all of us, he didn't return. The apartment – I'm not even sure if it's still there – has been empty of the Rav for nearly 30 years. Not so my heart and mind, especially as we come towards the end of Pesach, and his memory touches me profoundly recalling his burial on the last intermediate day of Passover, tomorrow, Thursday, April 12.
When the Rav had a book of lectures published in Hebrew in the early 1980's, each of his aides were thrilled to receive a copy, which he was happy to sign. In each he wrote, in Hebrew, "to my trustworthy students, who accorded me compassion and kindness." We could only return what we were given. Rest in peace, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Your apartment may be empty, but our hearts, and eyes, are full.