Judaism: Walking with Rav Soloveitchik: 20 Year Memorial
“...and they were walking and talking” - Elisha accompanying his mentor, the Prophet Elijah, on his last earthly walk (2 Kings 2:11 )
The walk from our home to the Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts should typically take 20 minutes. Often I wanted it to last for an eternity.
It is an early spring Shabbat afternoon at 109 Colbourne Crescent in Brookline. Noses pressed against the window panes, our young children Elisha, Irit and Shlomit are watching for a glimpse of the Rav, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik to appear. As he turns the corner into our street on his way from his Addington Road home to the Maimonidies School they shout, bouncing on the couch: “The Rav is coming, the Rav is coming”.
Our young family moved into the small Orthodox community in Brookline, Massachusetts in the summer of 1977. Living a mere few houses from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zts"l afforded us an unparalleled opportunity to interact with one of the greatest rabbinic and intellectual giants of the 20th century.
Sporting a dark blue suit and a dark straw hat, the Rav is accompanied by David, a young, energetic and tenured Professor of Mathematics at Harvard University. A child prodigy, David is a recent émigré from the Soviet Union who received no formal Jewish education. Although rooted in an atheistic, elite Moscow academic circle, David nevertheless lived the Maimonidean principle formulated in the Guide to the Perplexed: “Truth does not become more true by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so even if the whole world disagrees with it.”
Son of a world renowned Byzantine Empire historian, David discovered his Jewish roots and the Jewish religion while in his early twenties. Within a few years, he mastered the Hebrew language and was immersed in the study of Bible and the Talmud. In the early 1970’s, David was invited by Harvard University to join its Math faculty. This was the first time David was a member of an organized Jewish community which afforded him close access to a Torah giant. David never missed an opportunity to take advantage of this singular good fortune. The Rav in turn marveled at this lamdan who had emerged Phoenix-like from the Soviet desolation.
In Likkutei Torah, Chabad’s Alter Rebbe describes the unique closeness between G-d and the Jewish people during the month of Elul with the following parable:
“Before a king enters one of his cities, its inhabitants are enjoined to go out to greet him and receive him with praise and thanksgiving. At that time, anyone who so desires is granted permission to approach him. He receives them all pleasantly, and shines his smiling countenance on all . . . “ This intimate encounter is not possible when the king is in his palace, where formality and royal protocol preclude the king’s direct interaction with average citizens.
A unique highlight on Shabbat was the opportunity to accompany the Rav on his walk to and from the Maimonides School Synagogue.
In his capacity as Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University in NYC, the Rav was mostly accessible to his students and to a select group of leaders in the greater Jewish community. On the weekends, however, at his home in Brookline, the Rav was approachable by all the members of his community. A unique highlight on Shabbat was the opportunity to accompany the Rav on his walk to and from the Maimonides School Synagogue.
I rush down the 22 wide cement stairs leading from our two family brown wood frame home to join the Rav and David. They are engaged in intense dialogue.
In his work "Halakhic Man", the Rav highlights the intellectual effort as the hallmark of the ideal religious personality. He equates the theoretical norms of halakha with those of mathematics. Both disciplines develop abstract constructs which are then applied and translated into the physical world. “Both the halakhist and the mathematician live in an ideal realm and enjoy the radiance of their own creations" .
We walk past century-old expansive New England clapboard homes which are intermixed with smaller modern brick ranches built into the terraced hills, surrounded by plentiful foliage and old wooden fences. We make our way down the sloping road, turning left onto Rawson Road and reach the steps to Rawson Path.
Rawson Path is narrow and the stone steps are uneven. Tree branches provide dense shade with a few lingering rays of light penetrating here and there as a bevy of birds chirp a beautiful spring melody. A thought flits through my mind. The name Soloveitchick means nightingale, a singing bird in Russian.
We proceed slowly and cautiously.
Reaching Gardner road we are joined by Elazar, a young inquisitive and brilliant Maimonides School graduate enrolled in a Harvard-MIT MD-PHD program and by Shlomo, a local real estate construction entrepreneur, a major supporter of the Maimonides School.
We turn left onto Tappan Street. The street curves to the right, where it meets Blake and Sumner Roads. Avaraham joins our small, but growing assembly. He is a tall, elegant, successful businessman in his late 40’s, a nephew of Rav Moshe Feinstein and a relative and close friend of the Rav.
A bit further down, Yosef catches up to us. He is an unassuming graduate of Boston Latin with an unmistakable Boston drawl, and son of the venerable rabbi who, as head of the Chevra Shas, invited the Rav to move to Boston in the early 1930’s.
And now Shraga is in sight trudging his way downhill towards our group. A clean shaven Gerrer Chasid and Lower East Side transplant, Shraga is an ebullient, outspoken insurance business executive and senior member of the Shabbat Kiddush club which occasionally hosted the Rav. Yehoshua, a public high school teacher with extensive knowledge of the Ramban’s commentary on the Torah follows him. Chaim, an ambitious young real estate construction executive, formerly of Pelham Parkway in the Bronx, is rushing down Blake Road with his young son Elie to catch up with the chavura.
The tree lined intersecting streets of the small bucolic neighborhood are becoming dotted with more and more individuals who are emerging from their private homes and briskly latching on to this unique entourage accompanying the Rav on the way to Mincha.
“The prayerful-charity community rises to a higher sense of communion in the teaching community, where teacher and disciple are fully united."
Nissan, a silver-haired Boston native and farmer emerges from his home at the corner of Sumner and Tappan and quickly falls in step. Yehudit, a beloved teen aged learning-disabled member of the community, daughter of Shraga and niece of Nissan, is running quickly to catch up to the growing group. As she reaches the Rav, she gently takes hold of his hand which he clasps in his own.
"To recognize a person is not just to identify him physically. It is more than that: it is an act of identifying him existentially, as a person who has a job to do, that only he can do properly. To recognize a person means to affirm that he is irreplaceable. To hurt a person means to tell him that he is expendable, that there is no need for him. …it is not enough to feel the pain of many, nor is it sufficient to pray for the many, if this does not lead to charitable action. A responsible member of Knesset Israel must be spiritually awake, must be concerned for others, must work to help those in need.”
The conversation intensifies. David, the mathematician, is still on the Rav’s right and Yehudit, on the left, is now firmly grasping the Rav’s hand. Genius on the right, loving kindness on the left, flashes through my mind. Our communal walk has morphed into an integrally harmonious rainbow of Reb Chaim Brisker Torah, Chaslavitch Chabad Chassidic soul vignettes, University of Berlin, Kant, Herman Cohen, Maimonidian logic, with a mix of Einstein, the Minchat Chinuch and the Shagas Aryeh theoretical constructs.
We traverse the overpass above the Green Line cable car as it makes its way west. We cross paths with a noisy group of Brookline High School students wearing Boston Celtics emerald green T-shirts and hear snippets of Larry Bird’s latest miraculous jump shot under the boards. An MIT doctor of material science, an MGH trained infectious diseases specialist, and an oil wholesale distributor join us as we approach Clark Road. The latter holds a sheet of paper with a list of questions he plans to ask the Rav during the open question session between Mincha and Maariv.
Crossing Clark Road, we are joined by several members of yet another illustrious Boston real estate family famed for their cantorial talent. We start climbing Sumner Road. A flock of birds returning from their winter refuge in the south seem to be accompanying our equally wondrous late afternoon journey.
“Judaism has stressed the wholeness and the unity of Knesset Israel, the Jewish community. The latter is not a conglomerate. It is an autonomous entity, endowed with a life of its own .... However strange such a concept may appear to the empirical sociologist, it is not at all a strange experience for the halakhist and the mystic, to whom Knesset Israel is a living, loving and suffering mother."
We are on the last stretch. Turning left into Philbrick Road, we are by now a full entourage of eager adherents accompanying our master teacher as we stride adjacent to the curved white wall, capped with red shingles, that surrounds the Maimonides campus. Shlomo, tall, bearded and sporting his beret, Chairman of Harvard University’s Math Department, is followed by Yosef, a textile industry businessman and Chaim the dentist, all of whom are heading down Buckminster Road. A gentle eastward wind is blowing. The birds disappear over the large water reservoir on Route 9.
As we approach the school the Rav speaks about our forefather Abraham:
“'And lo, a dread, even a great darkness, fell upon him. And he said unto Abraham, Know of a certainty that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs” and Abraham asked: Whereby will I know that the time is right for me to take possession of Eretz Yisrael? G-d answered: take a heifer, a goat, a ram, a pigeon and a turtledove'-These animals represent the entire spectrum of species from which one can bring a korban. And G-d 'divided them in the midst and laid each against the others, but the bird he divided not'. Why was the bird not divided? The bird has the ability to sore high into endless space, and epitomizes the Jewish spirit which has never been defeated”.
We enter the school. I turn left to retrieve my siddur from the locker room and then open the wide oak door leading to the sanctuary...
The Rav is no more.
The small brick Beit Midrash is gone.
A new modern synagogue has replaced it. The Rav’s chair has disappeared. His shtender stands orphaned. Its weathered dark wood is in stark contrast to the new shiny honey colored modern pews. The frayed crimson velvet cover with the initials Rav J.B.S still gently envelops the top of the shtender. Hesitatingly, I pull the shtender’s door latch open. The Rav’s siddur is still there.
Our scintilla of heaven on earth has left us. We are bereft.
I return home.
Our babies have grown up and borne their own babies.
With whom will their children walk?
Itzhak David Goldberg is a professor of clinical radiation oncology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the CEO of Angion Biomedica Corporation.