On the fourth day of Pesach, we recall the maror of 18 years ago, when Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was taken from this world. At the age of 90, the Rav departed after having worn the mantle of Torah leadership for over half a decade. He had many distinctions. He was asked to become a candidate for the position of Chief Rabbi of Israel after the passing of Rabbi Isaac haLevi Herzog in 1959. He had the record of ordaining the most Rabbis of any Rabbi in Jewish history with over 2,000 students having his signature on their Semicha diploma. The Rav traveled the most miles to teach Torah, as, for 40 years, he flew roundtrip from Boston to New York each and every week. Rabbi Soloveitchik taught the first women’s Talmud class at Yeshiva University. Great honor was accorded him at a Lubavitcher Farbrengen by the Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, of blessed memory. The Rav became the Rosh HaYeshiva at Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of Orthodox Jewry.
One can google the name Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and spend the next several days reading about his brilliance and scholarship, leadership and eloquence, passion as a teacher and nuanced lessons on every facet of Jewish law. While I can attest to all of that as a student on Yeshiva University’s campus during the Soloveitchik years, my memories of the Rav are more personal, though I never attended his Talmud class. I was, however, an aide to this Torah giant during his last years at Yeshiva, and was privileged, along with a small group of students, to be part of his daily routine for two years in the early 1980’s. How did I become so connected to one of modern Jewry’s greatest treasures?
While a student in the high school division of the Providence Hebrew Day School, a group of us would pack into cars on a Saturday night after Shabbat in order to take the hour drive to Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts, a gem of a school established by the Rav. There, we would join hundreds of others who came to hear the Rav discuss the weekly Torah portion, many of whom hung on every word while writing ferociously as he spoke. I remember feeling spiritually nourished by the Rav’s nuanced explanations and teachings, awed by his breadth of knowledge both Judaic and secular, moved by the sheer number of people who packed the hall and those who stood for hours. “One day,” I said to myself, “at the end of his lecture I will go up to him and shake his hand.” I trembled at the thought.
One Saturday night, at the end of a lecture, as the Rav was surrounded by acquaintances and questioners and shmoozers and groupies, I decided it’s now or never, and found an opening in the crowd, and with chutzpah I held out my hand to shake his. If I were back at the hall in Maimonides School right now, I could tell you exactly where that handshake took place. Life went on.
As a student at Yeshiva University, I attended some of the Rav’s non-Talmud lectures, and understood that his aura and oratory touched me deeply. Here and there, I would stand outside the top Talmud class taught by the Rav, just to be immersed even a little bit in his brilliance.
One day, I was sitting in the cafeteria of Yeshiva University, and I heard a discussion by some of the Rav’s aides (I didn’t even know he had any) as they fretted about a situation that just came up. That Thursday the Rav was scheduled to fly back to Logan Airport in Boston, but was hesitant to travel alone. The aides were trying to devise a plan but couldn’t piece it together. I chimed in. “Tell me, what exactly needs to happen? I’ll be taking the train back to Providence on Thursday…” They told me when the Rav gets picked up on Thursday to go to the airport, how the driver usually parks and goes with the Rav through security and brings him to the plane, and how he is met by his sister and brother in law at Logan. In those days, the Rav flew People Express from LaGuardia in New York, and the fare was only $39.00 each way. I quickly thought that I could fly to Boston, get the Greyhound Bus from Logan to Providence (1 hour trip), and get picked up at the bus station. As the aides continued worrying about the Rav, I offered, “You don’t know me that well, but would it help if I flew with the Rav?”
If the Hallelujah chorus sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir could have been sung at any given moment at the Yeshiva University cafeteria, it would have been there and then as the aides looked at me with huge smiles. “You would do that?” Thinking of the one time I shook the Rav’s hand at the Maimonides School, and imagining me sitting next to him on a plane, I couldn’t believe what the Good Lord was ready to orchestrate. “I would be honored to accompany the Rav on Thursday.” Instructions were given, the deal was done. That Thursday, I was driven with the Rav to the airport, I walked with him to the plane, we flew next to each other, a few brief words were spoken, and we deplaned and found his family waiting to take him home. The Rav, and his family, were very appreciative. Move over, first handshake, this was HUGE.
As it happened, I flew with the Rav a few more times, and it wasn’t long before there was an opening in the cadre of aides, and I was recommended to apply for the position, considering the times the Rav and I flew together. After a few interviews, the very last being with the Rav’s son Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, I joined that small group of students who would be privileged and honored to spend personal time with the Rav. For two years, every Tuesday and Wednesday from 2:00-7:00 pm, I had a front row seat to one of this- or any- generation’s greatest thinkers and leaders. I thank God for orchestrating a time in my life that I think of so fondly and clearly on this day, the Chai anniversary of the Rav’s entering the rich rewards in the next world, so dramatically and excellently sown in this world. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, never before, never since, z’chuto yagen alaynu, may his merits shield and envelop all of Klal Yisrael.