Preparing a eulogy for Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zecher tzaddik livracha, is an incredibly daunting and almost impossible task. Rav Lichtenstein himself was a master eulogiser, he deeply valued the ability to fully capture the unique qualities of the departed and himself was exceptionally gifted at rendering the true inner beauty of a complex character. For Rav Lichtenstein, eulogies were to depict the entirety of the lost persona, to remember and honour the splendour of the individual and their distinctive contribution to the world. In his own eulogy written for Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Lichtenstein lamented the popular tendency to settle for broad, impersonal and hyperbolic exaggerations, quoting extensively from gemaras and Torah sources whilst saying little about the individuality and personality of the soul extinguished in this world.
Rav Aharon was someone who transcended all my expectations of what it meant to be a rabbi, who excelled in so many diverse fields, whose knowledge of Torah was unsurpassed in depth, clarity and rigour, whose humility could make one tear up, whose kindness and sensitivity knew no bounds, and whose religious devotion and yirat shamayim stood as a beacon of inspiration for all who knew him. Words cannot adequately encapsulate the true greatness he embodied and the dark harrowing void that has been created in his absence.
I feel obligated to preface this hesped with the caveat that this perspective of Rav Lichtenstein is a collection of experiences and perceptions of a single talmid who had the great fortune, the incalculable privilege, of learning in Rav Aharon and Rav Amital’s yeshivah almost ten years ago. Many others undeniably understand the depth and breadth of his thought much better than I could hope and knew him on a much more personal level than I ever did. And yet, I count myself blessed to have had the opportunity of spending a number of my most formative years learning in Rav Aharon’s beit midrash and exposed to his personality. Rav Aharon changed my life in perhaps the most profound ways possible; he opened me to a Judaism that demanded the very greatest devotion, he inculcated within me a responsibility towards the world around me, he presented a Judaism of the most profound depth, he showed me that Judaism spoke to the problems of the present and ultimately he embodied my own connection, my link in the mesorah, between Moshe Rabbeinu, the great sages of the Jewish tradition, and the present. Rav Aharon meant the world to me, and I can only hope to express a fraction of his persona and his impact upon me.
One of the things I personally remember most vividly about Rav Lichenstein was his special dedication to his students and his approach to education. I remember seeking for Rav Aharon’s counsel on a number of occasions. Charged and impatient, I approached Rav Aharon hoping for a clear answer to resolve the quandaries puzzling a yeshivah student in his late teens. After posing my questions, Rav Aharon would invariably reformulate my query much more profoundly and sharply than I had originally intended. Then, rather than offering a simple answer, Rav Aharon would subsequently proceed to present a wide range of possible solutions, allowing the manifold voices of the Jewish tradition to bear upon the dilemma at hand. Rav Aharon was ardent in his commitment to truth, he added qualification upon qualification in his responses and refused to deny the multifaceted nature of any problem. Rav Aharon was almost constitutionally incapable of representing only one side of any story, argument or idea. Rav Aharon believed that authentic education did not mask truths from students by presenting simple one-sided solutions. Whilst eminently frustrating for us in yeshivah, Rav Aharon encouraged his talmidim to fully confront the complexity of life’s situations, to empower through knowledge rather than superficially satisfy with half-truths.
Not only would talmidim walk away feeling more confused than before, learning of more considerations than they ever knew existed, but they would also leave somewhat disappointed that Rav Aharon had failed to provide a clear decision. Rav Aharon not only wanted us to appreciate all sides of a problem, but also almost always refused to make decisions on our behalf. Rav Aharon believed in us, he wanted us to take responsibility for our own actions. Whilst frustrating for teenagers seeking clear answers and immediate guidance, in his wisdom Rav Aharon realised that cultivating independent, mature and responsible talmidim was the educational priority.
Rav Aharon’s dedication to his students was reflected in his shiur style too. Rav Aharon’s shiur yomi was never merely a lecture where students passively jotted down the rav’s insights. Rav Aharon’s shiurim were always an interaction, a dialogue between rav and talmid, structured to unpack the depth of the sugiya together, to teach students how to learn and think for themselves rather than merely experiencing a final product.
Rav Aharon always made time for his students and never made anyone feel as though they were keeping him from something else more important, even though we knew we really were. Whenever you spent time with Rav Aharon, he made sure to understand your challenges properly and would treat your question with the utmost respect. Towards the end of my time at Gush, I had a meeting with Rav Lichtenstein to discuss my time at yeshivah and my goals for university. I mentioned to Rav Aharon that I was going to study history in London. In his characteristically pensive tone, Rav Aharon insisted that I read Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish historian. Rav Lichtenstein felt that Carlyle, through his writings, powerfully illustrated the potential of man to change the world around him, to generate new ideas and to influence society. At the time, what impressed me was Rav Lichtenstein’s knowledge of wider literature. Yet, upon reflection, what has been perhaps more meaningful to me in the long term was Rav Aharon’s aspiration to view all one’s endeavours in life as moments of potential spiritual growth. Rav Aharon taught me that my own university studies can contribute to the development of my broader religious personality too. No undertaking, Rav Aharon believed, should be embarked upon thoughtlessly without consideration.
One of the most inspiring facets of Rav Lichtenstein’s personality was his profound sense of responsibility to the Jewish people which ran deep through his veins. In his habitual candour, Rav Aharon saw communal obligations as elementary, as the default and most obvious way to live one’s life. Rav Aharon impressed upon his talmidim the need to dedicate one’s life towards one’s community and the world around, to educate wherever possible and to do whatever one could, and then some more, to help better society at large. One of the most powerful shiurim I remember at Gush was Rav Aharon’s pre-purim sicha on the story of Esther. At climax of the Megila, Mordechai warns Esther that she faced an existential decision. She could focus on her own fate and be forgotten from history, or she could embrace her communal responsibilities and take action for her people. In Esther’s own personal dilemma, Rav Aharon saw the question all of us ought to face in our own lives, do we look out for ourselves and for our own comfort, or do we ultimately choose to devote our lives to others? Rav Aharon embodied the life lived with responsibility towards the Jewish people and impressed upon us the importance of living with selfless dedication to others. That sense of responsibility will remain with his talmidim forever.
Rav Aharon is perhaps best known for his complex thinking, for his unique ability to theoretically dissect any sugiya or area of Jewish thought with the utmost clarity. Rav Aharon housed a breadth of Torah knowledge and an incisiveness of intellect which I have never witnessed before. Yet, this supreme capacity for complex nuanced and ultimately calm thinking was coupled with a deep inner religious thirst and a core energetic passion for Torah and life as a whole. What perhaps left a greater mark upon me than his commanding intellect, was this powerful inner energy which was tangible in all he did. I distinctively remember Rav Aharon pacing the halls of the yeshivah on his way to give a shiur holding more sefarim than seemed physically possible to bear. Rav Aharon had an unmatched stamina that was fuelled by this deep wellspring of intense energy. This vitality was palpable when he stood throughout yom kippur while others could think only of their stomachs and when he spoke for hours on end without signs of the faintest fatigue. For those who had the privilege of davening in Gush for yamim noraim, who can forget the way in which Rav Aharon stood in prayer for an entire day with the intensity of one praying for his very life? My encounter with Rav Aharon taught me that true Yirat Shamayim, fear of heaven, was not to remain an abstract concept, but a lived reality. As Rav Aharon once wrote so eloquently: “Intellectual assent is essential; but, at the personal level, it is generally not the key. In the final analysis, the primary human source of faith is faith itself.”
And yet none of these great feats stopped Rav Aharon from being the most humble and indeed human person I have ever encountered. Rav Lichtenstein possessed an authentic egolessness. This genuine humility, without a trace of pride, was coupled and fuelled by his respect for all around him. Rav Aharon would queue up and wash his dishes after a meal with the rest of the yeshivah like any normal person without a second thought. I was so touched to see the working staff of the yeshiva lined up and in tears when Rav Aharon’s levaya passed them. Rav Aharon treated everyone he encountered with the utmost respect and dignity.
During my second year in Gush, the English students had a private session with Rav Aharon where he shared some personal reflections on family life and his role as both Rosh Yeshivah and father. Rav Aharon made it clear that his duties to his family were never sacrificed by his communal position. Rav Aharon spoke fondly of how he went cycling with his children, learnt with them individually and helped with their homework like any other normal dutiful father should. For Rav Lichtenstein, the pursuit of Torah went hand in hand with the cultivation of one’s moral and human personality.
Rav Aharon loved poetry, which for him helped express the deepest of human emotions. I will forever remember the day Rav Aharon posted a poem by Robert Frost upon the wall of the beit midrash after expressing shock that one of his talmidim was unaware of its existence. The poem finishes with the following lines: “The woods are lovely dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.” Analysing these lines in a sicha later that day, Rav Aharon said: “creativity is endless and life is short. Nevertheless, the narrator longs to remain in the snow, by the woods. But he has promises to keep, and miles to go before he sleeps- and this sleep, is, of course, death.” Like the narrator of the poem, Rav Aharon felt the deep sense of responsibility, “the promises he had to keep”, which he kept with utmost devotion until his final days.
Before finishing, I would like to share a piece of Rav Aharon’s teachings on this week’s parashah, Acharei-mot, recently published by Rav Bazak. The parashah details the extensive avodah of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur. The avodah on Yom Kippur was particularly meaningful to Rav Aharon, who would legendarily teach these halachot of the avodah on Yom Kippur evening until the last talmid left the beis, no matter how late that was.
In this parashah, the Torah introduces these manifold laws of the Kohen Gadol’s duties for this auspicious day by referencing the death of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu. Why, however, does the torah place these two distinct ideas in close proximity? What is the connection between the deaths of Nadav and Avihu and the Kohen Gadol’s obligations on Yom Kippur? Rav Aharon raised two solutions to this problem. One, that Nadav and Avihu’s actions were problematic because they pursued their own religious hunger without considering the wider community. They pursued a personal vision without thought of the collective. The avodah of the Kohen Gadol, by contrast, provides the message that the ultimate and ideal religious act in Judaism is one which takes place on the communal level, with the active participation of the entire congregation. The parashiyot of the Yom Kippur sacrifices are thus a corrective to the sin of Aharon’s sons.
Rav Aharon also provided a second answer, stating that the danger underlying Aharon’s son’s actions was that unbridled personal religious passion can lead to the breaching of barriers and the loss of fear of heaven, the reality that a huge expanse separates the human from the divine. Therefore, to correct this sin of Nadav and Avihu, the Kohen Gadol was commanded a series of extensive halachot to highlight and inculcate the correct balance between love and fear of God. Passion is vital, but cannot go unchecked. These two answers are perhaps most aptly spoken of Rav Aharon himself, who lived his life in complete service of the klal, the community, and did so with a deep love for, and staunch obedience to, the halakhic system.
In a world increasingly sceptical of religion’s value and where true yirat shamayim is ever harder to find, the loss of Rav Aharon is tragically deep and profound. That all these diverse and unique qualities were housed seamlessly within one person is still hard to fully comprehend and makes his loss even more painful. However, when I once asked him how best to respond to catastrophe, Rav Aharon was always resolute. One ought to deeply mourn the loss and appreciate the magnitude of the hurt. Yet, that loss should always impel one to critical self-analysis and ultimately inspire the achievement of greater heights. Rav Aharon lived tirelessly by that axiom every day of his life. May his memory propel and stimulate us to do better, to push ourselves further and may his legacy forever provide the guiding light that awakens the very best within ourselves.
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(Transcript of a hesped I gave in London at an evening of Hespedim for Rav Aharon ZT”L)