Thursday, August 11, 2022

This Pesach will be the 23rd yahrtzeit for the “Rav” (Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l). When he passed away during Pesach in 1993, it was an epochal loss for us RIETS students. The Rav had been our hero in life, the one whom we all wanted to be, but knew we never could. The Rav was one of the greatest talmidei chachamim and roshei yeshiva to come out of pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe, yet he earned a PhD and valued secular knowledge. He validated our approach (Torah u’Mada).

The Rav possessed the living familial Talmudic tradition going back six generations to Rav Chaim Volozhiner, primary disciple of the Vilna Gaon.

True, he stopped teaching some seven years before his passing due to illness, so we were not his students, but we were all the students of his students. The Rav had been a living presence in our intellectual and religious lives.

Throughout the 30-day mourning period and beyond, hespedim (eulogies) for the Rav were scheduled every weeknight in the main YU Beit Midrash. Each evening we heard a eulogy from a single disciple, usually rebbeim at the yeshiva. Every hesped was scheduled for 9:15 p.m., concluding with Maariv at 10. We never finished on time. The Rav’s students had too much to share. Rav Hershel Schachter and Rav Yehuda Parnes each spoke until 11 p.m.

In the generations before the Shoah, Jewish Lithuania* had been the center of Torah study in the world, not Eretz Yisrael. This was the culmination of 1000 years of Jewish civilization. The Soviets, Nazis and their collaborators extinguished it.

All of us too young to join the AARP never really knew the Rav or the other Eastern European gedolim for that matter. This is a loss for us all.

Yiddishkeit is about mesorah —rebbi to talmid, father to son, mother to daughter. It is a way of life, a way of living, a way of learning. But the role models, from whom we learn to learn, learn to live, no longer hail from revered, hallowed Jewish towns like Brisk, Volozhin, Vilna, Slabodka, Warsaw or Pressburg. My father comes from Pennsylvania, while my rebbeim come from New York or New Jersey.

Something is missing. Even with all the Torah learning currently taking place, baruch Hashem, an important something is missing. We no longer are part of the European mesorah. We are a step farther from Sinai.

I feel sad for my son, who never met my grandfather who learned in Telz in Lithuania. Or my great-uncles who learned in Slabodka and the Mir. Instead, I fear, Noam’s only living connection to the European mesorah has been his father who cried at the hespedim for the Rav.

*Jewish Lithuania consisted of the Jewish populations of the current countries of Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and Northeast Poland.

By Shmuel Landesman

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