It is with a very heavy heart that I write these words. When I was approached to write something in memory of Rav Lichtenstein my first reaction was to refuse. This is because I am probably the least qualified person to try to encapsulate the immensity of who Rav Lichtenstein was and through his students and writing still is. In fact, Alon Shvut, where I live, is full of talmidei chachamim who are far more qualified than I. In this respect I ask forgiveness from Rav Lichtenstein and his students around the world if these words do not do him justice.
Many students have had the opportunity to cleave to Rav Lichtenstein via his teaching and wisdom. Although I had this privilege, to the best if my ability, my personal connection with Rav Lichtenstein was born out of the patience and understanding he showed to a somewhat clueless talmid who was trying to make sense out of the sea that is Torah.
I came to learn at Yeshivat Har Etzion at the age of 24, a relatively late age for a Hesder yeshiva. I immediately become friends with talmidim from all different countries and ages. At the time I had never heard of Rav Lichtenstein and had no true appreciation of what an immense personality he was. One of my Israeli friends sat me down and explained to me and insisted that I had the unique opportunity of leaning from one of the great minds in Torah today and that I dare not leave the yeshiva before I had learned in Rav Lichtenstein’s shiur.
After having been in the Yeshiva for a couple of years and having served in the IDF, I returned to the yeshiva , knowing that I could afford one more year before I needed to return to the working world. The words of my friend resonated within me and I decided that I would attempt Rav Lichtenstein’s shiur. I knew that my level of understanding was too low and needed to work out a solution so that the shiur would be productive to me.
Hesitantly, I approached the Rav and requested some of his time. He agreed and I launched into my story, covering how it was important for me to learn in his shiur as I had been told that I dare not miss the opportunity if learning from a Torah giant. I then explained that I was quite confident that I would not understand his shiur and asked if he would mind meeting me after the shiur and explaining to me what he had said. The Rav smiled at me and told me to come to his shiur for 2 weeks and then we would meet again.
For those two weeks I learned to all hours of the night straining myself to my utmost to glean what I could from the Rav’s words. Not once did I manage to complete the mekorot (set items to learn for the next shiur) and, though I learned so much from the Rav’s mannerisms, humour and energy, I did not understand the lessons he was teaching.
After two weeks I meekly made my way across the beit midrash to sit at the Rav’s table. I looked at him and admitted absolute defeat. I explained that I understood so little, that I did not have the depth of understanding to understand what I had not understood in order to ask an intelligent question. However, I did manage to understand that the way I was preparing for shiur was not effective and that I was not using my time wisely. I thanked the Rav for his time and effort and said that I was honoured and privileged to have learned in his shiur and was glad that I had had the experience but felt that I should go to a different shiur. Before I left I explained that I was unable to prepare myself adequately for his shiur and asked if he could explain to me how to learn better.
Rav Lichtenstein smiled at me and explained that at my level I was unable to prepare properly for his shiur and that it was important to learn strategically. For example, the Ramban is very complicated and difficult to learn but the Rashba, who was the Ramban’s student was easier to understand and by learning him I would gain insight into the Ramban or, I could learn the Ritva, Rashba’s student and gain insight into the Rashba and the Ramban. He then leaned back and said, “ … or you can take it easy with the Me’iri” and with a sweeping motion of his long arm and large hand said, “ or cruise with the Ran.”
He smiled at me, his eyes twinkling and said, “That is enough for now.”
At that moment I was introduced to a man that did not learn the Tanaim, Amoraim, Rishonim and Achronim but rather learned with them. In my time at Yeshivat Har Etzion I had the privilege of learning under a Rosh Yeshiva that was deep, insightful, intelligent, and sensitive and in my eyes - cool.
I will always appreciate the man that looked upon me, a young man ignorant in Torah and not of the level of learning normally required for the Gush and let me learn there believing I could do it. Yeshivat Har Etzion has been critical in my approach to Torah, my integration of spirituality into my daily living and the way I try to incorporate learning into the weekly schedule.
Although I am not the most learned person to graduate from The Gush, I did leave the Yeshivah enriched, armed with tools for learning, having the privilege of a relationship with a host of talmidei chachamim and having been touched in my heart by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein.
I am sure many other people will write articles in Rav Lichtenstein’s memory that may contain greater prose and deeper thoughts but I would like it noted that he spoke to me and people like me in an intimate and deep way too and he will be very very missed.
Yeshivat Har Etzion