In a year that has seen the loss of far too many gedolei Yisrael, we were again stunned last week with the passing of Rav Dovid Soloveitchik, zt”l.
Rav Dovid was the last surviving son of the Brisker Rav, Rav Yitzchak Ze’ev Halevi Soloveitchik zt”l, who was also known as Reb Velvel. Rav Dovid represented that longstanding Brisker tradition of intellectual rigor and lomdus.
I remember my first meeting with Rav Dovid in 1968. I was in Israel for a few weeks in the summer and went to Rav Dovid’s house to speak “in learning” with him. He was so welcoming and generous with his time, especially considering that I was not a talmid and only 20 years old at the time. As I was leaving his apartment, I was called to the apartment of his upstairs neighbor for a minyan. As it turns out, his neighbor was none other than Rav Dovid Cohen, known better as HaRav HaNazir. A close talmid of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook and editor of Rav Kook’s sefarim, he was also the father of Rav She’ar Yashuv Cohen, the former chief rabbi of Haifa, and the father-in-law of Rav Goren, the former chief rabbi of Israel. Within the frum world, it would be hard to find two more ideologically distinct personalities than HaRav HaNazir and Reb Dovid Soloveitchik, yet in Yerushalayim these two great men lived together in one apartment building.
The Brisker tradition is not restricted to its exceptional Torah scholarship but also consists of a legacy of Chesed. This mesorah of Chesed defined Rav Chaim Brisker no less than his intellectual revolution, the Brisker derech. Rav Chaim always worried about the most vulnerable members of society—the indigent beggars, the unwed mothers and the families with no firewood for their homes in the winter. Those with no homes of their own would live in Reb Chaim’s house as if it was their own home—it was open to all. Growing up, Reb Chaim’s children would give up their beds for some poor soul who needed a place to sleep. Rav Dovid recounted that his father was fine with giving up his bed for others, but felt bad when his “makom kavua,” his designated place for davening, was taken over. These were lessons that Reb Dovid took to heart.
There is a certain tzaddik in Israel named Rav Avraham Chaim Cheshin who was close to Reb Dovid, as well as to Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita. Rav Cheshin runs a program for children with autism and Reb Dovid was always trying to ensure that the program would have the necessary resources to continue and expand, for the sake of these “heilige kinder,” as he called them. When Reb Dovid took ill about a year ago and was in the hospital, he called me to see what we could do about the “heilige kinder.” Even then, his concern was for others.
Not that long ago, there was a fellow Jew who unfortunately was incarcerated. Reb Dovid wanted to help get this person out of jail. I shared a story with him that I had heard from the Rav, z”tl about Rav Chaim: There was once a Bundist—a communist, a complete apostate—who was imprisoned after being accused of plotting to assassinate a member of the Tsar’s family. Reb Chaim learned of the story on Erev Yom Kippur. He announced to his congregants: “We will not start Kol Nidrei until we raise enough money to get this man out of prison,” and he sent his sons, Rav Moshe and Rav Velvel, around Brisk to collect the required amount that was needed to hire an advocate to free this person. Rav Dovid told me that he, too, knew of this episode.
Like his grandfather Reb Chaim, Reb Dovid represented the kindness of his illustrious forebears—he was a complete aristocrat of the mind and of the heart.
Many years ago, when my father was ill, I asked the Rav to daven for him. As per tradition I gave him my father’s Hebrew name, along with my father’s mother’s name. The Rav asked me what my father’s father’s name was—contrary to the popular practice of using one’s mother’s name when praying for the sick. I assumed that this must have been Rav Chaim’s minhag. When I asked Rav Dovid if this was a tradition he knew of, he said he hadn’t heard of it before, but it made sense to use the father’s name as well. When Rav Dovid took ill, I prayed for his recovery and I always made sure to use his father’s name: HaRav Meshulam Dovid ben HaRav Yitzchak Ze’ev.
His passing is an irreparable loss for klal Yisrael. May the family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, author of “Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons on Faith and Leadership,” is Chief Executive Officer of the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Division and rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Englewood, New Jersey.