Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l, On His 49th Yahrtzeit, Today


rav-aharon-kotler-2By Rabbi Shaul Kagan

Rav Aharon Kotler was born in Sislovitz, White Russia, in 5652 (1891) and passed away in New York City, on 2 Kislev, 5723 (1962). During his years in Europe – as Rosh Yeshivah in Kletzk, and his later years in America – as Rosh Yeshivah of Bais Medrash Govoha, in Lakewood, New Jersey, he was a dominant Torah personality.

A moment in time, and an eternity. To those who knew the Rosh Yeshivah he seems at once to have been with us but yesterday, and to have been gone for an immeasurable span.

His words remain our constant companions: “Rosh Yeshivah said -,” “The Rosh Yeshivah held -.” The freshness of his memory does not diminish with the passage of years. Transcending the immediacy of his teachings and of the photograph carried in his talmidim’s pockets, the picture of spiritual greatness remains vivid in our minds. True, gadlus cannot be quantified. In fact, it can barely be defined. But over the years we may have grown into a more mature appreciation of Reb Aharon’s greatness.

We knew Reb Aharon as the adam gadol, the great man – as the Rosh HaYeshivah – and as the Manhig Hador, the generation’s pre-eminent leader of our people, a people whose genius it has always been that its leaders were both sages and saints. But the facets of Reb Aharon’s personality are not divisible. He was all three at once. And as all three he illuminated his age and dominated the renaissance of Torah in America.

The Rosh Yeshivah

During the waning days of the year 5700 – as Torah Jewry was emitting its last dying breath on the European Continent, the undisputed leader of his age, Hagaon Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, found solace, as he told Reb Elchonon Wasserman: “Reb Aharon will build Torah in America.”

Reb Aharon was first and foremost the Rosh Yeshivah.

He was known to the world as “the Rosh Yeshivah,” and it was as such that he addressed himself to the problems of the Klal. From his conviction that the purpose of Yisrael is the study of Torah, he saw the yeshivas as the consummation of the Divine will and the salvation of Klal Yisrael.

In the words of a leading contemporary, wherever Reb Aharon would have been there would have been a yeshivah. For Reb Aharon was not a Rosh Yeshivah by choice, certainly not by profession, but out of simple existential condition. Thus, Reb Aharon went about the spiritual wastelands of America with the Torah – not unlike the Holy One, Blessed be He, Who went from nation to nation before Sinai – facing rejection after rejection: “Rabbi, please don’t bother us,” “Rabbi, you’re wasting your time,” till the force of his convictions and the urgency of his message finally prevailed – many of his detractors becoming his staunchest supporters.

Reb Aharon transcended the walls of his own yeshivah and was the Rosh Yeshivah of all yeshivos: In the early days of the war he was a leading spirit in the hatzalah (rescue) effort to save the fleeing remnants of the European yeshivos, who were later to breathe life into the American and Israeli yeshivos. In 1948, during and after the fighting in Eretz Yisrael, the yeshivos there were on the verge of financial collapse. In spite of the severe financial condition of his own yeshivah, Reb Aharon was a primary force in raising the then-astronomical sum of over $100,000 for them in several weeks. He was the founder and pillar of Chinuch Atzmai…a major power in Tashbar…chairman of the Rabbinical Council of Torah Umesorah – chairman of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, Presidium member of the Agudas Harabbanim – and the list goes on. If a Rosh Yeshivah is by definition one who perpetuates and disseminates Torah, then Reb Aharon was indeed the Rosh Yeshivah of Klal Yisrael. And in the broadest sense, in that Reb Aharon was a final arbiter of daas Torah, all of Yisrael may be said to have sat at his feet, with Reb Aharon as its Rosh Yeshivah.

That Special Energy

In his efforts for Torah, Reb Aharon knew no fatigue, as he knew no fatigue in his efforts to breathe.

We remember Reb Aharon in continuing motion from early morning till late in the night – without food, without respite. He was in fact frail – but powered by a special spiritual grace: rallying support for the yeshivah, for Chinuch Atzmai, for Agudath Israel, meeting the demands of whatever crisis faced Torah Jewry. Reb Aharon was the Yissachar and the Zevulun – source of both material needs and spiritual sustenance.

We remember Reb Aharon saying the shiur (lecture) despite a high fever; and an older student recalls Reb Aharon delivering a shiur in his yeshivah in Kletsk – a presentation of several hours’ duration – coughing blood, but proceeding with the same sparkle, concentration, and verve as ever. The Torah energized Reb Aharon, replenishing his vigor, “the Ark carrying its bearer.” And we remember Reb Aharon in his final illness – semi-conscious – words of Torah pouring from his lips. Torah was the breath of his life; and so long as he breathed, he breathed Torah.

The yeshivah gave him his strength and his stamina. He would arrive at the yeshivah after a week of exertion on behalf of Torah and Klal, radiating joy at his return to the wellspring of his existence, never failing to express the hope that the next week he would be able to return earlier.

The Nature of Torah shape of the Yeshivah

Reb Aharon would tell ba’alei battim (lay leaders): “The purpose of the yeshivah is not the Roshei Yeshivos or Rabbanim or educators that it produces, but simply the development of true bnei Torah, versed not only in the fundamentals of Torah but in the fundamental nature of Torah, to whom Torah is the throb and pulse of life. The yeshivah is the repository of the mesorah, securing the future of Torah and of Klal Yisroel.”

In truth, Reb Aharon’s every activity, on both the personal and communal level, pulsated with his total identification with Torah, but it was as Rosh Yeshivah that he consciously taught Torah, the nature of Torah and the approach to Torah.

Thus Reb Aharon in his role as Rosh Yeshivah comes clearly into focus through an understanding of his concept of the nature of Torah itself – as he sensed it, embodied it, and conveyed it.

Torah, Reb Aharon used to say, is above time and space, and if the American context is not cause for undermining Torah’s integrity, neither does it give reason to alter the character of the yeshivah. Form follows function and both must be as unalterable as the Torah itself. And he cast the yeshivah in its classic mold.

Torah, Reb Aharon taught, is the purpose and goal of Creation, the destiny of the Jew – the highest form of worship and the consummation of the Divine Will; both the means and the ends of human fulfillment. Through Torah alone man unites with his Creator – for G-d and His word are one. Through Torah, man rises above the ordinary to the sublime, the mundane to the spiritual, the profane to the Holy, and finally, mortality to immortality.

Torah is greater than the sum of mitzvos – its commandments. It is the source from where the kedushah of the mitzvos flows; the mitzvos being the essential means whereby man sanctifies his body and soul to absorb the Torah itself; the purifying effect of Torah in turn expands the dimensions of his mitzvos, increasing his absorptive capacity for Torah, ad infinitum.

Reb Aharon once expressed himself to this writer, with a laugh, that there are those who consider the study of Torah as a mere mitzvah, comparable to other mitzvos!

Torah is as infinite as its Creator and no man can claim to have completed it. Torah study merits the greatest rewards in this world and in the World to Come – the greater the diligence the greater the reward. And those who engage in Torah – the b’nei Torah – dwell at the pinnacle of the World to Come.

Torah is the source of all that is meritorious. Time wasted from Torah is the source of all evil, the gravest of sins, for it subverts the nature and purpose of Creation.

To Reb Aharon it was inconceivable that any Jew could find permanent satisfaction other than in Torah itself. “The Holy One, Blessed be He, say Chazal has naught in this world but the Four Ells of Halachah. How can man aspire to gain more from this world than G-d Himself!”

At the close of a Yom Tov, the Yeshivah was engaged in its usual “Simchas Yom Tov” in the dining room. Reb Aharon had spoken on a relevant topic and was in an elevated mood. At the termination of his talk, the talmidim generally sang a tune to the words from Psalms “Were it not for Thy Torah being my delight, I would succumb to my poverty.

Reb Aharon interrupted the singing: “Imagine! David the King was the wealthiest man in history. Verses in Tanach list a fortune of incalculable magnitude, Yet King David felt himself drowning in a sea of poverty, but for the Torah, his only enduring, transcending possession!”

The vision of Reb Aharon exclaiming those words conveyed more than any conceivable lecture on the ultimate fulfillment and happiness to be found in Torah. With Torah as his possession, Reb Aharon lacked nothing.

His Phenomenal Love

Reb Aharon’s own love for Torah study was phenomenal. As he studied, his face strained with concentration – smiling – even laughing – out of rapture. This love was extended to whoever was engaged in Torah and expressed itself in the boundless pleasure he drew from seeing others learn.

His legendary hasmadah (diligence) must be credited not so much to intellectual pleasure or a sense of duty as to his recognition of the value of Torah and the inestimable fulfillment that it gave him. To Reb Aharon, every word of Torah that he learned added a fresh dimension to his life – a point that he stresses in his writings – conceiving it, as it were, out of his own experience. One could witness in Reb Aharon the liberating identity-creating force of Torah, following the dictum of Chazal that there are none who are free save those that are engaged in the study of Torah.

An American Rosh Yeshivah remarked that in every conversation with Reb Aharon he would prompt him to pronounce the word “Torah” to see his reaction. For when Reb Aharon spoke about Torah, he took on a new life, a quickening and agitation pervading all his faculties.

It did not require much to bring Reb Aharon to talk about Torah. The word was ever on his lips. In virtually every conversation, regardless of the topic – in every public speech, no matter what the occasion – he eventually turned to Torah, urging and pleading with everyone to join him in his own involvement.

His speech was often unclear. He alone fully grasped the significance of his message – but there could be no mistaking the urgency of his appeal: Torah is not for the chosen few. Torah is the soul of every Jew and every Jew has the capability and obligation to achieve – to a greater or lesser degree – its end. If a Jew believes that he does not love the Torah, it is because this love has not been cultivated. Learning itself is the most select instrument for developing receptivity to Torah. He even succeeded in instilling this belief and this feeling among wide circles outside of the yeshivos.

Reb Aharon strongly opposed yeshivah students pursuing secular studies, as a limitless waste – exchanging for even a moment the infinite fulfillment of the Divine Torah for mere temporal knowledge.

In the same vein, Reb Aharon saw involvement in secular studies as the ultimate indignity to the word of G-d, implying a rejection of Torah for its relative inadequacy in meeting man’s need for absolute fulfillment.

Reb Aharon persistently stressed the integrity of the Torah. He agonized over attempts – particularly by those presumably in the Orthodox camp – to distort Torah. “Torah, Divine in origin, in essence above human comprehension, must remain free of human content and distortion. It must retain that purity of form and shape as when it was given at Sinai – to maintain its viability and its truth. One cannot synthesize or integrate Torah with any foreign element – it is a perversion of Torah and an undermining of the very existence of the Torah nation.” Reb Aharon points out in a published essay that wherever the integrity of the Torah was violated, the Jews as a national group eventually disappeared before the tide of assimilation.

“To preserve the integrity of Torah” – continues Reb Aharon – “demands of Torah disciples the concentration of every resource of volition and intellect, and requires the undisputed authenticity of the transmission of Torah – the mesorah – in an unbroken chain from Moshe to the present day.”

Reb Aharon would repeatedly emphasize two words: omol baTorah” (laboring in Torah) and “ohl Torah” (the yoke of Torah). Torah is infinite in its depth and breadth, and only through extreme exertion could man hope for some acquisition in small measure.” Reb Aharon, for all his intellectual genius, presented a picture of extreme effort in Torah study. More than a mere search for knowledge, this was an extension of his total self-negation and subjugation to Torah. For Reb Aharon never attempted to impose his own concept of what was logical or his own preconceptions on the Torah he studied, but would accept relationships as delineated in the Torah as axiomatic. He would repeatedly review the passages of Talmud and commentaries, relate it with others until the logic behind it impressed itself upon him, and then followed its reasoning to its conclusion. This self-negation allowed the Torah to be his complete intellectual master. One might say that his lectures were not Reb Aharon talking, as much as Torah talking through him. “It is imperative,” Reb Aharon was wont to say, “to avoid reducing the Torah to human level, but to raise man’s logic to that of the Torah.”

As the neshamah (soul) permeates the entire body, so must the Torah – the soul of Creation and of Israel, to use Reb Aharon’s words – permeate the whole man. Torah must be accepted on its own terms.

His “Derech”

This writer is hardly equipped to present an exposition of Reb Aharon’s methodology – his derech halimud His incisive analysis, lucid exposition, profound reasoning, grace an elegance of thought – they are all fairly well known. Fundamentally, his concept of Torah was an extension of his search for unadorned truth (an attitude that extended to such minutiae as rejecting a proposed receipt-book because it featured a touched-up picture of the yeshivah). The Patriarchs, Reb Aharon once explained, achieved their faith through their trait of truth and their uncompromising search for truth. He would search out proof not just for his conclusions, but for every turn of his reasoning.

His particular forte in learning was “hefker”- integrating all sources and passages pertaining to the topic, and the ramifications of all conclusions. If a particular conclusion could not harmonize with all the pertinent passages – with “Shas,” one might say – then it was false, beauty of thought notwithstanding.

His Mission

Reb Aharon also taught the nature of the Gadol. “The Rav must be comparable to an angel.” An angel can accomplish but one mission; that is, it only exists for that mission which encompasses the frame of his entire existence. Reb Aharon was comparable to an angel, for he seemed to exist not for himself or his family or even his own spiritual advancement, but solely for his mission of propagating Torah.

A Rosh Yeshivah’s success is measured by his ability to instill his concepts into his talmidim. To Reb Aharon’s credit, he attracted and inspired an entire generation of American youth. Lacking the idiom of the land, not a remarkable orator in the popular sense, his eloquence lay in the content of his words and the passion with which he spoke them.

Reb Aharon’s strength as a teacher was the living example he provided of Torah rooted in his every fiber. Perhaps the best instance was witnessing the Rosh Yeshivah saying the shiur.

His face earnest and strained in almost unbearable intensity. The fires, burning in his soul, mirrored in his eyes – those brilliant, piercing blue eyes that were a study in themselves – glowing like embers, The movements of his hands following the flow of his words – his words like hammer blows, racing after each other from his mouth in furious haste – his voice rising and falling, crashing in an impatient surge against the increasing tension in the room – questioning, explaining, expounding in a mounting crescendo . . . finally reaching the climax, his face suffused with light, radiating joy, smiling, even laughing – out of almost sensual pleasure – the spark of eternity shining through his eyes. His entire mien, crying, exclaiming, exulting in the eternal fulfillment of Torah, proclaiming its beauty and truth – its beauty being its truth – overwhelming everyone with his own soaring spirit, drawing all to come join and rejoice in the delight of G-d and man! “Fortunate was the eye that beheld all these, for to hear with our ears our hearts mourn” (Machzor Yom Kippur).

His “Children” – the Talmidim

It is characteristic of Gedolim that they can bridge the chasm between the years, and despite their advanced age, bind the youth to themselves; for the truth and purity of their convictions strikes a responsive chord in the idealism of youth.

Beyond doubt, the Rosh Yeshivah’s ability to instill his lessons in his students also rested in his ability to relate to them. His heart held love for all creation, all of Yisrael, all b’nei Torah, but “Disciples are like sons” if not more. In fact, his widow, the much-revered Rebbetzin, once remarked, “He loves his grandchildren almost as much as his talmidim.”

Reb Aharon, undergoing surgery, attributed his suffering for failing to have had sufficient sympathy for a suffering talmid…Reb Aharon, giving away a pair of his shoes to a student whose own were torn…Reb Aharon using personal funds to pay a talmid’s carfare home, to permit him to stay a few days longer in the yeshivah.

While Reb Aharon could be scathingly sharp when circumstances warranted it, he was virtually never angry on a personal level. Striving for perfection in himself and his students, he chastised with gentleness, not scorn, pleading with his talmidim to improve – like a child, pleading for what is most precious to its heart.

His mussar, like his shiurim, was all-embracing: on Torah, prayer, teshuvah and especially on ethical values.

He once spent a considerable portion of his shmuess – ethical talk – on the inconsiderateness of raising one’s voice in conversation; on neat appearance, on punctuality – all seemingly trivial, but significant when viewed as a mark of respect towards fellow man.

In one lecture, he chided the students for discussing trivialities rather than Torah – not so much because of time taken from Torah, but for the lack of consideration in filling another’s mind and time with trivialities.

But more: he opened our minds with the personal portrait of ethical perfection that he presented.

On the highway he would divert the driver away from the automatic toll booth to a manned one: “it’s not k’vod habriyos (respectful of humanity) to pass up a man for a machine – as though man were redundant.”

One of Reb Aharon’s greatest contributions was, without doubt, the raising of the K’vod HaTorah (the esteem for the Torah): the acceptance of the class of b’nei Torah, especially Kollel men who devote themselves to intensive Torah learning; and above all, the creation of a standard of excellence in the American setting.

After the Holocaust, Judaism was in trauma. Reb Aharon’s success in transplanting Torah from one set of conditions to another infinitely more difficult one, was an achievement that transcends greatness, for he became a living link in the chain of mesorah, stretching from Moshe to the Moshiach, achieving immortality within his own lifetime.

Manhig Hador – Leader of Klal Yisrael

When Reb Aharon was a young boy studying in Slobodka, he met with the sage of the generation HaGaon Reb Chaim of Brisk. Reb Chaim subsequently said, “Someday half of the world will rest on this boy’s shoulders.”

The sequel took place in 1945. The Brisker Rav, son of Reb Chaim, surveyed the enormity of the disaster that had befallen Yisrael and sighed, “At least Hashem has done us one grace; He has left us Reb Aharon.”

Reb Aharon the Manhig Hador was in large measure the extension of Reb Aharon, the Rosh Yeshivah – the fate of the two, Yeshivah and Klal, essentially indivisible. Reb Aharon had two overriding concerns: the centrality of Torah, and its authority as sole guide and arbiter over the communal and individual affairs of the nation; and the preservation of the Jewish People in their spiritual and physical integrity. Reb Aharon saw in the People the repository of the Torah, and in the Torah the guarantor of the nation’s continued existence.

For the attainment of both ends, Reb Aharon’s first step in coming to this country as a penniless war refugee was (as mentioned) in hatzalah. The Jewish secular establishment, in general, was lethargic. He found but a small group of dedicated individuals actively involved in this effort. He was instrumental in broadening the base of the rescue effort, crying like Reb Yochanan of old, “Give me Yavneh and its scholars.” Priority was given to the remnants of the yeshivos in Siberia, Shanghai, and whatever other temporary haven they had found – but the hatzalah efforts were extended to whoever could be grasped from the clutches of Nazi terror.

Reb Aharon’s personal needs were non-existent in face of the monumental task at hand. On the very next day after his arrival at Pennsylvania Station he was on the phone asking those who had met him what had been done since. A colleague recalls Reb Aharon borrowing train fare home after a Vaad Hatzalah meeting.

Typically, he confronted then-Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr., fist banging on the table: “The Secretary’s position is not worth a single Jewish life!”

Reb Aharon’s interests were universal, the orbit of his activities world-wide.

His Klal activities increased and broadened after the war, for the time was ripe for an infusion of more Yiddishkeit and more Torah on the American scene. The emergence of the Zionist State sharpened the Kulturkampf on both sides of the world. There was virtually no crisis the world over, affecting Torah or Klal that Reb Aharon did not confront, taking the lead in defense against attacks from within and without. As a leader who carried ultimate responsibility, Reb Aharon never waited to be asked; nor did he seek public approval. And those who would challenge the integrity of Torah feared him. In the words of Gadol after Gadol “When Reb Aharon was alive, they would not have had the audacity”…How many times have we heard the refrain “If only Reb Aharon was still here!”

He would have preferred to devote himself fully to Torah studies. Which talmid does not remember the Rosh Yeshivah trying to write, to learn, between phone calls – sighing once to a bachur, “See? You must learn when you’re young.”

This writer recalls a wedding Reb Aharon attended. At every turn, he was involved in klal affairs. With one Rabbi discussing influences that could be brought to bear on a meeting (then in session) of European Rabbis; – with another, how to insure the selection of the most desirable principal in a Long Island day school; – with yet another, a complex halachic question of broad ramifications – Reb Aharon rendering a decision, clearly, quickly, concisely; – during the wedding celebration, in another room at the same hotel, Reb Aharon addressing the formative meeting of a new rabbinical organization he himself had initiated; – and so it went the entire evening.

Reb Aharon would reject compromise not only in fear of its peril, but because of its essential invalidity. Characteristic was his statement on the eve of his death that it was preferable to close Jewish high schools than allow them to be co-educational. He led the war and issued the ban against rabbinic organizations of “mixed” composition (Orthodox-Conservative-Reform). Reb Aharon directed the battle against conscription of women into the Israeli army, climaxing in the memorable demonstration on 73rd Street in Manhattan, to which he sent his entire Yeshivah. – As for the threats against continued support to the Yeshivah, he was quoted as replying, “They may close the Yeshivah, but I will not retreat from my daas Torah.” (The late Brisker Rav remarked that as long as Reb Aharon was in America, there would be no compulsory conscription of woman in Israel.) Reb Aharon fought the establishment of a so-called “Sanhedrin” or world spiritual center (climaxing with his famous defense of the Brisker Rav) for what he termed the usurping of Torah authority. The list goes on endlessly – against the Conservative “Kesubah,” defending the integrity of shechitah and the sanctity of the synagogue, secret efforts for Jewry behind the Iron Curtain, the absurd question of Mihu Yehudi (suggesting non-halachic basis for Jewishness), the sanctity of Yerushalayim, and countless more – often in the background, but always the decisive and authoritative force.

The Organized Expression of Klal Yisrael

In pursuit of his objectives – recognizing no legitimacy in Klal Yisrael other than the Torah and its authoritative spokesmen – Reb Aharon postulated an independent Orthodoxy, self-reliant, uncompromising and non-subservient to the secular and Zionist establishment. The major vehicle of this independence was, of course, the Agudath Israel movement, conceived not as a political party – he viewed partisan politics with repugnance – but as the organizational arm of united Orthodoxy – the instrument of implementing the policies and decisions of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (Council of Torah Sages); the decisions, if you will, of the Torah itself.

Among his statements on the topic:

The Gedolei Torah (Torah leaders) of the previous generation underscored the urgency of Agudath Israel. During recent years in general, and particularly since the establishment of Medinas Yisrael, it has been confirmed for us to what extent we need Agudath Israel. (Fourth Knessiah Gedolah – Sivan, 5714)

The purpose of Agudath Israel is to be Mekadesh Shem Shomayim and to elevate esteem for Torah in all times and circumstances. When a Jew joins the Agudah, he reaffirms his belief in the Jewish people as a sacred nation, and that Klal Yisrael must conduct itself with loyalty to Torah…for Agudath Israel provides that central force that proclaims that Klal Yisrael must be subservient to Torah. (Thirty-fifth National Convention of Agudath lsrael of America – 1958)

There are many who claim that they subscribe to personal Judaism (yechidim Yiddishkeit). – They do not consent to an organized band. But individuals can accomplish nothing. (Thirty-seventh National Convention of Agudath lsrael of America – 1960)

Yet the Agudah could never be an end unto itself, and if a specific goal was best realized through an outside agency, the interests of the Agudah as such were secondary. When once asked why the yeshivah bachurim are not more actively involved in the Agudah, he reputedly answered that the very purpose of Agudah was that the yeshivah bachurim should be able to devote themselves exclusively to Torah, and not the reverse.

As chairman of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, Reb Aharon was both theorist and activist, making the decisions and then proceeding to implement them.

The Dimensions of “Klal” Work

His day consisted of crisis following crisis, one crucial decision on the heels of another, a burden that would have broken ten lesser men operating in concert. Through it all, Reb Aharon was radiant, always in good spirits. He virtually belonged to Klal Yisrael – his door, like his mind and heart, ever open – unsheltered by organization or secretariat. His home was a reshus horabbim (public domain) where everyone felt at home. It was not possible to impose upon Reb Aharon, for he recognized no imposition.

He was a most prodigious fund raiser on behalf of the Klal, soliciting money for Tashbar, Chinuch Atzmai, Agudath Israel – often approaching supporters of his own Yeshivah. When a group of admirers sent him a truckload of furniture to replace the cast-offs he was using, he returned it, commenting: “It’s a crime to squander Jewish money.”…He often paid out of his own meager salary as Rosh Yeshivah – his only income – for expenses incurred in the process of serving the yeshivah itself.

To Reb Aharon the needs of the individual were almost equal to those of the collective, and incredibly he found time for hundreds, thousands of individual acts of kindness and charity. It is said that in the World-to-Come, time itself will be of a different character and Reb Aharon almost seemed to live in that different sphere. Perhaps anyone who so completely cares for his fellows finds the time and the energies.

The Approach: From Unity of Torah to Unity of a Nation

In the words of one of his eulogizers, Reb Aharon was the “mevaror hasefeikos” – the resolver of doubts. In life as in his learning, he stripped away the non-essentials, cut to the heart of a problem, and with his massive intellect, and the authority and decisiveness of the Gadol Hador, he would establish the position of the Torah.

Reb Chaim of Volozhin wrote that in a dilemma one should first study Torah and then, through the Torah, arrive at the correct solution. Reb Aharon, forever immersed in Torah, always arrived at a daas Torah solution to the problem at hand.

How, Reb Aharon was once asked, is a true Gadol identified? Gadlus (greatness), is, after all, an elusive quality not measured by erudition and scholarship alone. Klal Yisrael, replied Reb Aharon, recognizes its Gedolim. Using his own words from a different context, Reb Aharon was never nominated, never ran, was never elected to his position of pre-eminence. He was the Gadol Hador by common consent, by unspoken recognition – his soul perhaps in communion with the individual and collective soul of Yisrael, which recognized him and responded to him: “If they are not prophets, they are the sons of prophets.”

Indeed, when Reb Aharon passed away, people who had never met him, people who had not witnessed his funeral to be moved by that massive spectacle, were equally seized by a sudden fear for the future, a disconsolate awareness of something irretrievably lost.

One can perceive the divinity of the Torah, that “Torah (is) min Hashomayim,” Reb Aharon used to say in the name of the Vilna Gaon, through the Torah’s cohesion. His own most singular trait in learning was the cohesion and unity of his chiddushei Torah (his novellae); his perception and his skill in unifying the divergent elements into a unified whole. And as leader of the Klal, he bespoke the unity of the nation.

When Reb Aharon came to the U.S.A., he was met by a tiny delegation from the Agudath Israel and the Agudas Harabbanim – hardly anyone in America had heard of him. Barely twenty years later, a tempest tore at the world at his last illness and his passing. Tens of thousands came to bid farewell, joined in mourning and sorrow by hundreds of thousands more. That final demonstration of K’vod HaTorah, to which Reb Aharon had dedicated his life, was the most forceful commentary on the magnitude of the revolution he had wrought and the position he had achieved in the hearts of his people.

The Man

Reb Aharon as Rosh Yeshivah and as Manhig Hador can, to some extent, be characterized by his achievements. But the essence of the man is beyond our grasp. Reb Aharon was comparable to an elemental force of nature whose properties can be described, but whose substance remains beyond human understanding.

The spontaneous awe Reb Aharon aroused in us might be described as an awareness of the Shechina (Divine presence) resting on him – like the reaction of the non-observant Jew who, by his own testimony, became Shomer Shabbos purely from seeing Reb Aharon – reminiscent of Reb Aharon’s oft-repeated statement that whoever saw the Gaon of Vilna could never have been an apikorus. Indeed a prominent American Rosh Yeshivah once remarked that one who saw Reb Aharon had some idea of how the Vilna Gaon might have appeared. A student, newly arrived at the Yeshivah, complained to his former Rosh Yeshivah, himself a talmid of Reb Aharon, that he could not understand Reb Aharon’s speech. “Well, then simply sit and look at his face,” was the reply…This writer recalls his first Yom Kippur in the Yeshivah, Reb Aharon after Kol Nidrei, circling the Beis Hamidrash with the Sefer Torah; his cheeks, always red when under strong emotion, were burning; his eyes smoldering; the intensity on his face virtually unendurable – as one might imagine an angel.

Reb Aharon himself was a lesson in self-negation toward Gedolim. He could spend hours, his eyes flashing, recounting the incidents of their greatness – answering one critic with the terse comment that he was not simply telling tales, but presenting vivid lessons.

“Gadlus” at an Early Age

Reb Aharon’s greatness was apparent at an early age. We know little of those early years, for as the Rebbetzin once remarked, in fifty years of marriage he never once spoke about himself. What we do know is from contemporaries or an occasional word he dropped apropos of a given occasion:…When he was nine, he knew the entire tractate Kiddushin. At eleven, he was tested by his father on all of Kesuvos (one of the largest and most difficult tractates) with all Tosafos and, in his own words, “knew it well.”

In his youth, he was – in the words of Reb Meier Simcha of Dvinsk – the greatest illui (prodigy) to be born in forty years. To Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, he was the “Reb Akiva Eiger” of the generation. To the devastatingly critical “Ragotchover Gaon” – in what is perhaps the greatest tribute of all – “He knew how to learn well.” Both the Chofetz Chaim and Reb Chaim Ozer, in so many words, saw in him the future Gadol Hador – the Chofetz Chaim devoting more time to him than to any other single individual, and treating him with signal honor.

Torah – a Source of Greatness

“Torah,” Reb Aharon used to say, “creates fresh faculties in man.” Which of his own remarkable faculties were inborn, which were developed by sheer effort, and which emerged by grace of the Torah can only be guessed.

His absorptive capacity and the fleetness of his mind were phenomenal. He grasped the most intricate topics in moments – even in matters of which he had no previous experience. We have seen him race through an extremely complex page of the Talmud as quickly as his fingers flew across the words. He would become deeply involved in several topics at once, as anyone who spent any amount of time with him could testify.

His diligence was legendary. In his youth in Slobodka, there were periods when he would learn till he fell asleep at the shtender (desk) – wake up refreshed, and continue his studies, changing his clothes but once a week, for Shabbos. As a young man in Slutsk and during his middle years in Kletsk – already bearing the heavy burdens of the Yeshivah and Klal – many were the times he stayed awake throughout the night engrossed in his studies. In his advanced age, absorbed in the affairs of Klal, he always held a sefer in his hands, turning to it every unoccupied moment, never really diverted from his Torah, ever studying with utmost intensity and zeal.

One of the Yeshivah bachurim recalls a typical day in New York with Reb Aharon. It was his turn that day to be the Rosh Yeshivah’s driver. Reb Aharon left his apartment in Boro Park immediately after breakfast. The entire day was spent without any let-up – traveling, meetings, the Yeshivah office, visiting people to solicit funds – a day full of strain and its usual share of heartache.

During the day, Reb Aharon ate one apple – in the car, holding the core, the peel, and the pits in his hand until the next stop, so as not to litter the road.

The day continued beyond exhaustion, finally returning home close to midnight. The moment Reb Aharon walked in, he stopped. “Oh” he exclaimed, a look of pain on his face, and the sound of anguish in his voice, like a man who had been starving for a month – ” I have not yet learned today!” – despite the fact that he had held a sefer in his hands throughout the day, glancing into it every spare moment, and that he had been “talking in learning” with his driver.

He immediately seized a Gemara and sat down to learn with extreme zeal. When the Rebbetzin brought in a bowl of soup, he refused it. “Give it to him,” he said pointing to the exhausted and hungry driver. He himself had no time to eat.

Days of this sort were the rule rather than the exception.

Powers of Concentration

Under the severest pressure, he not only continued his learning, but continued in his creativity, writing his chiddushim. While still in Poland, Reb Aharon and his group were following the military situation by radio, planning their escape. Between broadcasts Reb Aharon would return to his Gemara as if nothing were amiss. Traveling across war-torn Soviet Russia, under constant threat of Communist treachery…arriving in a Moscow hotel room, finding no table or chairs. A talmid went to fetch these, and returned to find him sitting on the bed, writing his notes. – In the words of his father-in-law, Hagaon Reb Isser Zalman Meltzer, Reb Aharon could learn sitting on the blade of a knife.

A Balance

Perhaps the single most valid criterion of Gadlus is the balance of the various talents and parts of the man. No one could say of Reb Aharon that he was more clever than pious, more pious than learned. That his erudition was not in proportion to his depth, or his scholarship not commensurate with his ethics. It seemed to us that all of Reb Aharon’s spiritual and intellectual resources were equally beyond measure. Certainly they were beyond our conception.

The opposites in his character were staggering. He hated evil with his every fiber, yet loved his fellow men despite their foibles. A dominating personality, yet self-effacing. Creative and original – no thought or word or deed was not rooted in the Torah, the Talmud, and the Commentaries. Indeed, he saw in the Torah what few others could see. Single minded, yet versatile; quickest of men and the most deliberate; practical and visionary; he was approachable yet distant; he lived, it seemed, in a different sphere than ordinary men, yet knew how to deal with us in the context of ourselves.

A leader of men, yet he shunned publicity; his name virtually never appeared in the press. A Yiddish paper once ran a series of articles on living Torah leaders. Reb Aharon categorically refused to allow any articles about himself. Yet he attained world-wide fame – in keeping with the maxim: “He who flees fame will be pursued by fame.”Reb Aharon,” in the words of a contemporary, “did not know the meaning of kavod – except to give it to others.”

He was mildest of men and most forceful of men. I have seen Reb Aharon change in a moment from lamb to lion: seated at his dining table, his face expressing utter mildness and benevolence. I questioned him regarding a projected Hebrew Teachers’ Union, amalgamating with a large trade union. Within seconds his expression changed to fierce determination and intensity. Quietly, in a voice laced with steel, he tersely stated his position: This proposal is a threat to the independence of the teachers and as such a danger to Torah education, and he was adamantly opposed. Soft and yielding in his personal relationships – a child could sway him, he was tenacious and fiery when it came to a question of Torah – to affairs of Klal

Reb Aharon was extremely patient. Yet he never walked, he ran – time was limited, the immensity of his self-imposed task undiminished. He often lectured about the precious gift of time.

To be with Reb Aharon was always exciting. He was like a boiling cauldron, and something was usually happening. But more to the point, he ignited others with his excitement for learning. Yet for all of his intensity (at least in this writer’s experience), he never failed to relieve the tensions and anxieties to which youth is prone.

Despite the immense awe that Reb Aharon struck in us, such was the quality of the man that he was beloved by us all. In the words of an observer, “One thing about Reb Aharon, all his talmidim loved him.” Indeed to love Reb Aharon was to love life itself.

For all his seriousness, Reb Aharon had a remarkable wit, peeking through at odd moments…At the conclusion of a meeting, one of the assembled suggested to Reb Aharon that he tell the bachur who was his driver for the day not to divulge what had been discussed. “But, nothing of consequence had been said,” remarked another. “Exactly,” replied Reb Aharon “That’s what he shouldn’t reveal.”

In contrast to Reb Aharon’s sense of mission was an appealing, almost childlike innocence. He could not be devious and it was hard for him to suspect it in others. He could cry easily, without self-consciousness and without affectation.

We have seen the tears well up easily when exhorting us to teshuvah before “Ne’ilah”: Quick, quick, there is still time! The Gates are open. The Holy One, Blessed is He, Himself is begging you to enter. It is easy if you but wish it…At a talk before Tishah b’Av, he suddenly cried out, Imagine the kedushah that has been lost because of the Destruction!” – at the mention of the word “kedushah” he burst into tears.

Reb Aharon was old when we knew him, yet more youthful than his students. He was austere in his personal life, often speaking out sharply against the American materialism, yet unfailingly generous to others, seeking not only their well-being but their comfort. Money, he once said, has no value to him other than to give it to a yeshivah bachur. His personal charities were totally out of proportion to his income, more than once donating large sums in order to encourage others to follow his example.

Walking one day in Yerushalayim, he suddenly turned, ran after a beggar and gave him some coins. Several years previously, he later explained, that same beggar had approached him for alms, and he had had no money left on his person. Spotting that beggar now, he hastened to make up for it, giving him a double amount.

He once gave alms twice to the same beggar, once upon entering and again upon leaving the shul. Someone noticing him pass the second time without giving might assume that he had a reason not to give to this particular beggar.

Reb Aharon used the full measure of his genius to anticipate and secure the wants of his fellow man…The incidents could go on without end.

That he could harmonize the conflicting elements of his personality is one of the largest measures of his greatness. This unity of life, the integration and pattern that exists through the total direction of Torah, the whole being infinitely greater than the sum of the parts, epitomized Reb Aharon.

Without Distinctions

Reb Aharon was deferential to the greatest and the smallest. On one well-known occasion, he reversed a publicly stated position when faced with the opposition of a Gadol whose competence on the matter he felt greater than his own, subsequently pursuing his colleague’s decision with the same force and dedication as he would his own. This involved no element of false modesty. When he knew his own competency to be superior, he retreated before no one.

Reb Aharon venerated every student of the Torah, seeing in them the elite of Klal Yisrael. To request a personal favor from a student even when necessary was almost traumatic for him, especially if he felt that it would disturb him from his studies. He categorically refused – except under the most extreme circumstances – to allow a bachur to perform a menial task for him. One of the bachurim once offered to draw his bath for Shabbos. Under no circumstances, said Reb Aharon. lt is not fit for a ben Torah – allowing only the janitor of the Yeshivah to do this, who incidentally recognized it as a privilege.

In Reb Aharon the distinction between the material and the spiritual was blurred. The luminosity on Reb Aharon’s face was an observable physical phenomenon.

The angel in Reb Aharon was discernible – but more to the point, ‘the man could be seen in the angel – the heights that man could ascend to by virtue of the Torah. “Thus said Rabbi Meir: He who is diligent in Torah for its own sake, ascends to many great things.”

Did you ever see his photograph? Do not accept it; for neither artist nor camera could capture the fire in his eyes, the radiance on the face, the exhilaration of his presence – the zrizus, the quickness of his movements, the vital and elemental life force that flowed from the man.

The image engraved in one’s memory is more accurate than any photographic or artistic rendition.

The impact of his presence can somewhat be felt by the pain of recalling his taking leave.

Remember the moment the news came that the worst had indeed happened? Remember the sounds in the Beis Hamidrash? One could have sworn that the walls themselves were screaming . . . Traveling to New York that Thursday afternoon to bring back the aron, the sound of the automobile motor rose in a wail, a dirge. We couldn’t get the sound out of our ears. Wasn’t the whole world crying? Didn’t a scream and a silence at the same time seem to engulf the entire universe? The sun couldn’t really be shining, could it?

The shock was too great to absorb. Our minds refused to accept. For days, no one really had anything to say. “Sit on the ground and be silent, elders of the daughter of Zion. “lt took time for the enormity of the loss to penetrate, to be absorbed and accepted – weeks for our lives to be restructured on a new and diminished level, It was as if an immense sadness had settled over the world.

It was as if we thought he would live forever, so inconceivable was life without him; or, as a number of his talmidim said; “Who could have imagined greeting the Moshiach without the Rosh Yeshivah?!”

Reb Aharon left a great legacy. Whoever was touched by him, or simply caught sight of him became moved by his life-force and caught sight of his goals. This force nurtured within us can bring us closer to emulating him and to realizing that for which he strove.

{This article originally appeared in the Jewish Observer and is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series.}

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