June 14, 2024
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Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l — rosh yeshiva of Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan and av beis din of Boston — was one of the leading scholars, talmudists, Jewish philosophers and thought-leaders of the generation. Rav Soloveitchik was a teacher par excellence, and impacted the lives of thousands of talmidim and musmachim (those with semicha) through his shiurim and writings. A scion of the rabbinic dynasty of the Beis HaLevi and Reb Chaim of Brisk, “the rav” was a torchbearer of the Brisker approach to Torah and greatness in Torah.

At a pidyon haben celebration in 1974 — when Rav Soloveitchik was in his 70s — he reflected on the awesome role and responsibility of transmitting our mesorah to the next generation:

“To me, it’s an experience of combining, uniting, merging many generations into one community — where discrepancy of age disappears, where years play no role and centuries have no significance. Where generations can — so to speak — communicate and commune with each other …

Whenever I start the shiur, the door opens, another old man walks in and sits down. He is older than I am. All the talmidim call me ‘the rav’… but he is the great one, the grandfather of ‘the rav.’ His name is Reb Chaim Brisker, without whom no shiur can be delivered nowadays. Then, the door opens quietly again and another old man comes in … He is older than Reb Chaim; he lived in the 17th century. What’s his name? Shabsai Kohen, the famous “Shach,” who must be present whenever dinei mamonos (court cases about monetary matters) are being discussed and we study Bava Metzia or Bava Kama. And then, more visitors show up… Some of the visitors lived in the 11th century, some in the 12th century, some in the 13th century and some lived in antiquity, such as Rebbe Akiva, Rashi, Rabbeinu Tam, the Raavad, the Rashba, more and more … come in, come in, come in … Of course, what do I do? I introduce them to my pupils, and the conversation commences … ”

This unity of generations, this march of centuries, this conversation of generations, this dialogue between antiquity and present will finally bring the redemption of the Jew. These great scholars, the living Torah scrolls — the chachmei hamesorah — stand for more than their own physical existence. They are links in the chain of Torah; participants in the ongoing dialogue that began at Sinai.

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Our sedra records the final moments of Yaakov Avinu’s physical life, as he shares parting messages and blessings with his children — charging their missions for the future.

Despite Yaakov having been eulogized, embalmed and buried, the Gemara states (Taanis 5b) that יַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ לֹא מֵת, “Our father, Yaakov, did not die.” The sages explain: מָה זַרְעוֹ בַּחַיִּים — אַף הוּא בַּחַיִּים, “Insofar as his descendants are alive, he himself is alive.” Yaakov lives on through us — his children — and through his mesorah and his righteousness, which were transmitted throughout the generations to those who would carry his influence forward. Indeed, the impact of this ongoing transmission is very much “alive” and present in this world.

On the subject of “Our father, Yaakov, did not die,” the Lubavitcher Rebbe says that the term “afterlife” is anyway inaccurate — for the experience of the soul after leaving this worldly existence is — actually — just a continuation of life in another form. The difference is, in olam hazeh — this world, life is experienced in one dimension. After 120 years (the human lifespan mentioned in the Torah), the soul moves to exist in its next iteration; yet, it also remains as a presence in this world — especially through the continuing impact of its actions and accomplishments in this world, including its descendants. Our sages have expressed this fact in their well-known sayings:

גדולים צדיקים במיתתן יותר מבחייהן

“The righteous are exalted in death even more than in life,” (Chullin, 7b).

צדיקים במיתתן קרויים חיים

“Tzaddikim are called alive, even in their death,”(Brachos, 18a).

In Rav Soloveitchik’s celebrated essay, “Sacred and Profane,” he reflects on the yahrtzeit of his father, Rav Moshe, zt”l:

“It seems to me as if my father were yet alive, although four years have come and gone since his death. It is in a qualitative sense that I experience his nearness and spirit tonight. I cannot explain the דמות דיוקנו של אביו (Sotah, 36b), “the spiritual picture of father” that hovers near me tonight, as in a yesteryear of physical existence.

… The Jew of the mesorah has a different conception of time. Revelation and tradition erase the bounds of time. Distance in time is non-existent for him. Thousands of years may have elapsed, but he walks back and forth from antiquity to modern times …

For Jewish boys and girls, Avraham is not a mythical figure, but an ever-present inspiration. They live through his tribulations and wanderings. They travel with him from Syria to Eretz Yisrael. They feel the fear and trembling of Yitzchak at the Akeidah. They escape with Yaakov to Charan. They are imprisoned with Yosef in the pit. They rejoice in his ascendancy to high office and fame. They lead the Jews with Moshe in the desert of Sinai. They sing with King David. They are exalted with the prophets. They laugh with Rabbi Akiva. They meditate with the Rambam. These figures are not dead or historical ‘have-beens’ for the children of the cheder or the adults of the halacha; but dynamic, living heroes who visit the Jew from time-to-time, bringing him comfort, inspiration and hope.”

May our completion of sefer Bereishis — punctuated by the passing of Yaakov Avinu — enliven us with a sense of responsibility and pride. As we cry out: “Chazak chazak v’nischazeik,” may we be “truly strengthened,” and celebrate the privilege of being a link in the unending chain of Torah.

May we pass our precious mesorah along to our loved ones and to the next generations — with the loving care and aliveness of all the true tzaddikim.


Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpiah of OU-NCSY, founder of Tzama Nafshi and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife Ora and their family.

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