R. Ahron Soloveichik: Reflections of a Talmid

Joshua Rudoff Tradition Online | September 23, 2021

Today, 17 Tishrei, marks the 20th yahrzeit of Rav Ahron Soloveichik zt”l. To commemorate this giant of the spirit we publish this reminiscence by his devoted talmid, R. Joshua Rudoff, who served as R. Ahron’s faithful shamash at Yeshiva University for four years. Read some of R. Ahron’s essays published in TRADITION. Revisit the tribute penned by R. Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l to his role models, “The Source of Faith is Faith Itself,” in which he writes: 

Reb Ahron, while an inspiring vision, somehow seemed within reach, and truly presented a model. It wasn’t so much what he said or did. I was simply enthralled by what he was — a remarkable fusion of mastery and simplicity, of vigor and humility and, above all, a pillar of radical integrity. To an extent probably far beyond what he knew or could even have imagined, he was to me, for many years, a polestar. Upon attaining fuller maturity, I came to realize that the notion that I could attain his level was pretentiously vainglorious. But his hold upon me, and the ambition and commitment it generated, have not waned to this day.  

ONE COULD EASILY BE INSPIRED by merely watching Reb Ahron walk. Reb Ahron suffered from a debilitating stroke in 1983 that paralyzed half his body. Just over three years later, I was privileged to hear his first shiur at Yeshiva University in my senior year of college. The next years of personal tutelage under Reb Ahron would become my most transformative years of learning as well as foundational in terms of my own Jewish ideology. 

I was simply awed by the heroic efforts Reb Ahron made in order to galvanize his potential to spread Torah. Nearing his eighth decade, and in intense physical discomfort, he would fly to New York from his home in Chicago on Tuesday mornings, deliver an intense Gemara shiur that afternoon as well as the following two days, after which he returned home where he maintained a similarly intense teaching schedule at Yeshivas Brisk. All this while literally dragging half his body from place to place. Yet, one would hardly notice the disability during shiur itself. Teaching Torah overpowered any pain or even the exhaustion entailed just to walk to the shiur classroom. While teaching he was totally transformed. I believe this drive was all part of the “soul” he spoke of in his essay, “A Glimpse at Eternity From a Hospital Dungeon” (TRADITION, Fall 1984). This soul motivated and encouraged Reb Ahron not to let his disability impede in any way upon his harbatzat Torah. Sitting in his shiur I, too, was invigorated. What a thrill it was to hear a difficult Talmudic conundrum followed by a solution that was introduced with “I heard from my father who heard from Reb Chaim…” and to have Reb Ahron invite us to become a part of that living legacy.

Wednesday evenings at Yeshiva were a particularly special experience when Reb Ahron delivered his shiur at 9:00 o’clock that focused on Parashat HaShavua. It was during these shiurim, attended by a wider audience than his Gemara class, that I was exposed to the foundations of Jewish philosophy that in turn helped shape my own Jewish worldview and ideology. Reb Ahron easily drew upon deep knowledge of history to make comparisons to the French Revolution, the American founding fathers and the writing of the Constitution, or the Bolshevik Revolution, and would just as easily embed psychological concepts into his presentation as well. Reb Ahron would try to be encouraging yet strong in the messages being delivered. For example, in regards to the Teshuva process, Reb Ahron related that one who hates himself cannot effectively do Teshuva. After all, this is founded in the biblical text itself: “And in that day I will become angry with them and forsake them; I will hide My face from them, and they will be destroyed. Many disasters and calamities will come on them, and in that day they will ask, Have not these disasters come on us because our God is not with us?”(Deuteronomy 31:17). Reb Ahron pointed out that, at first glance, the end of this verse hints at a sense of optimism as it seems to point towards the beginnings of the Teshuva process – the subject realizes that he is devoid of spirituality which led to his downfall. Yet the very next verse continues: “And I will certainly hide my face in that day because of all their wickedness in turning to other gods.” Why is the reaction one of anger and a future bereft of God’s presence? The answer is that one who feels depressed, dejected, and demoralized with no inner sense of worth nor connection has no chance to properly repent and will only fall deeper into despair. One is obligated to love oneself. Just as one is charged with loving God Almighty “with all your heart, all your soul, all your might,” so too, one must love oneself as each person embodies the image of God Himself. Only this sense of self-confidence can ignite the spark required for full-fledged Teshuva.

Reb Ahron would immerse himself entirely into the content of the shiur with no regard for outside distractions. I fondly recall one particularly intense (and long) Wednesday night shiur on Lekh-Lekha which lasted until midnight. Upon concluding, he innocently asked me, “Is it 10 o’clock yet?” 

Reb Ahron’s morning routine naturally started with enwrapping himself in his tallit and donning tefillin. He remarked that if one were to ask him to paskin if a paralyzed man in a similar condition to his own would be obligated to don tefillin, his objective and decisive answer would be “No.” One is not obligated to spend more than a fifth of one’s worth on the fulfillment of a mitzva. The pain involved in this process was much greater in measure. However, this never prevented Reb Ahron from fulfilling this daily mitzva. Herculean efforts were required for him to simply arrive in shul and to carry on his daily routine which might have exhausted most men of sound body half his age. Yet, so it was. 

Reb Ahron was a man of his convictions. When he believed he could influence an issue he felt passionately about, he would spare no effort to do so. When the “Who is a Jew?” controversy was raging in Israel, he made it his business to travel to Jerusalem to personally meet with the Prime Minister in an attempt to influence the decision-making. On the other hand, when Reb Ahron had nowhere to turn to resolve or influence an issue, his deep faith in Hashem was apparent. When his precious grandson z”l turned ill, Reb Ahron recited the entire Tehillim every day in an effort to beseech for Divine mercy. There was no stopping this effort. I clearly remember the tumult of YU’s Hanukka Hagiga taking place in the Beit Midrash while Reb Ahron sat at a table in the corner, oblivious to it all, reciting his Tehillim.

Reb Ahron deeply empathized with the pain of others. Upon returning from a visit with a then famously Jewish imprisoned man, Reb Ahron was deeply troubled and even pained by what he considered gross mistreatment and violations of the person’s basic rights. Reb Ahron advocated for more fair and just treatment.

I shared some memorable personal moments with Reb Ahron and his wife, Rebbetzin Ella. Once I passed a Judaica store in Brooklyn and noticed a clock with Reb Ahron’s picture affixed to it. I had to acquire it. Upon returning to Reb Ahron’s YU apartment, I was greeted by the Rebbetzin who had joined Reb Ahron that week since the school she taught at was on winter break. I showed off the new purchase and the Rebbetzin was enchanted (and amused) by it. I presented it as a gift to the delighted Rebbetzin Soloveichik (and purchased another for myself). Years later, my wife and I had the great fortune to spend Shabbat with the Soloveichiks in Chicago, where I witnessed the very clock hanging in their dining room. Reb Ahron held deep respect for his wife. On that Shabbat I remember Reb Ahron asking, “Ella, may we bentsch now?” – to which Rebbetzin Soloveichik responded, “Just as soon as I finish drinking my hot water.” 

Another deeply personal and impactful moment was when Reb Ahron made a trip to my family’s home, then in Brooklyn, while I was sitting shiva for my father z”l. Just before I could express my deep gratitude to Reb Ahron for filling the role of a father figure for me during the preceding months while my own father battled cancer, Reb Ahron expressed how much he valued the sense of considering me like a son. During my years with Reb Ahron, we shared so much together during rides to the airport, RCA conventions at the Homowack, and simple dinners in the apartment at YU. 

Once Reb Ahron was invited to Cong. Orach Chaim in Manhattan to deliver thoughts in commemoration of R. Moshe Feinstein’s yahrzeit. Before the address, Reb Ahron mentioned to me that he was going to say something that had never been said before about Reb Moshe. I was on the edge of my seat and needless to say was not disappointed. What Reb Ahron said that night is an equally appropriate description of his own legacy: 

Upon the demise of Elijah, his disciple Elisha proclaimed: “‘My father! My father! The chariots of Israel and their riders!’ And he saw him no longer. Now he took hold of his garments and rent them in two pieces” (II Kings 2:12). What is the meaning of the double proclamation of  “My father, my father”? Furthermore, why refer to Elijah as a parental figure? Elisha was implying that to him, Elijah filled the dual parental role. The Zohar comments on the concepts of Musar Avikha and Torat Imekha (Proverbs 1:8), that “father’s instruction” represents the Written Law, while “mother’s Torah” symbolizes the Oral Law. However, “Written Law” (Torah she-bikhtav) is not be taken literally in the sense of the actual written text, but rather as that which can be reduced to writing. Torah she-ba’al Peh, however, must be absorbed through experience, not through a written record. Both the code of Sinai and the fire of Sinai must be transmitted. Fire serves three functions: to illuminate, to heat, and to consume. But the fire of Sinai only contained the first two characteristics: A child must understand that the fire of Sinai, like that at the burning bush, never consumes. It is the role of a father to transmit this voice of Sinai. On the other hand, according to tradition, God addressed the women first (Rashi to Exodus 19:3). While a father instructs halakhot and rebukes the wayward child, it is the motherly figure who serves to inspire. This is Torat Imekha which took precedent at Sinaiָ, corresponds to the oral Law, and cannot be written down. Reb Ahron’s mother, Rebbetzin Pesya (Feinstein) Soloveichik, taught Reb Ahron what it was like to be sad on motzai Shabbat as the Sabbath Queen departs. The fire of Sinai cannot be absorbed through sefarim – but rather only through the personal contact between rebbe and talmid. For Elisha, Elijah embodied both the role of father and mother. He taught and inspired. Reb Moshe similarly filled both roles for his students worldwide. At the same time Reb Moshe embodied the leadership role of “The chariots of Israel and their riders.” A charioteer drives slowly. A horseman, however, speeds along jumping through hurdles. To the talmidim who grasped quickly, Reb Moshe was like a horseman. But for others, he had the patience of a charioteer. Reb Moshe shed light and warmth, without ever burning, and simultaneously transmitting Torah to Gedolei Yisrael and Reb Yisrael around the globe. 

When Rebbetzin Soloveichik passed away, the inconsolable Reb Ahron remarked during shiva that he felt like “half a soul.” There was a diminution in his neshama that had kept his drive alive since the debilitating stroke years earlier. Two decades have passed without the presence of my rebbe, yet his great undiminished soul of inspiration lives on to motivate me and his many talmidim

Joshua Rudoff, a musmakh of RIETS (1991), resides in Bet Shemesh and works for IBM’s Global Chief Data Office.

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