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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Magical Moments of Mesorah VI - Rav Moshe to Reb Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik

"I remember myself as a child, a lonely, forlorn boy. I was afraid of the world. It seemed cold and alien. I felt as if everyone were mocking me. But I had one friend, and he was - please don't laugh at me - Maimonides, the Rambam, How did we become friends? We simply met!

"The Rambam was a regular guest in our house. Those were the days when my father, my mentor, was still living in the home of my grandfather, the great and pious Rabbi Elijah Feinstein of Pruzhna. Father sat and studied Torah day and night. A rather small group of outstanding young Torah scholars gathered around him and imbibed his words thirstily.

"Father's lectures were given in my grandfather's living room, where my bed was placed. I used to sit up in bed and listen to my father talk. My father always spoke about the Rambam. This is how he would proceed: He would open a volume of the Talmud and read a passage. Then he would say 'This is the interpretation of Rabbi Isaac and the [other] Tosafists; now let us see how the Rambam interpreted the passage.' Father would always find that the Rambam had a offered a different interpretation and had deviated from the simple way. My father would say, almost as a complaint against the Rambam, 'We don't understand our Master's reasoning or the way he explains the passage.' It was as if he were complaining to the Rambam directly, 'Rabbenu Mosheh, why did you do this?'

"My father would then say that, prima facie, the criticisms and objections of the Rabad are actually correct. The members of the group would jump up and each of them would suggest an idea. Father would listen and rebut their ideas, and then repeat, 'Our Mater's words are as hard to crack as iron.' But he would not despair; he would rest his head on his fist and sink into deep thought. The group was quiet and did not disturb his reflections. After a long while he would lift his head very slowly and begin, 'Rabbotai, let's see...' and then he would start to talk. Sometimes he would say a great deal, other times only a little. I would strain my ears and listen to what he was saying.

"I did not understand anything at all about the issue under discussion, but two impressions were formed in my young, innocent mind: (1) the Rambam was surrounded by opponents and 'enemies' who want to harm him; and (2) his only defender was my father. If not for my father, who knew what would happen to the Rambam? I felt that the Rambam himself was present in the living room; listening to what my father was saying. The Rambam was sitting with me on my bed. What did he look like? I didn't know exactly, but his countenance resembled my father's good and beautiful face. He had the same name as my father - Moses. Father would speak; the students, their eyes fixed on him, would listen intently to what he was saying. Slowly, slowly, the tension ebbed; Father strode boldly and bravely. New arguments emerged; halakhic rules were formulated and defined with wondrous precision. A new light shone. The difficulties were resolved, the passage was explained. The Rambam emerged the winner. Father's face shone with joy. He had defended his 'friend,' Rabbenu Mosheh the son of Maimon. A smile of satisfaction appeared on the Rambam's lips. I too participated in this joy. I was happy and excited. I would jump out of bed and run to my mother's room to tell her the joyful news, 'Mother, Mother, the Rambam is right, he defeated the Rabad. Father came to his aid. How wonderful Father is!'

"But occasionally the Rambam's luck did not hold - his 'enemies' attacked him on all sides; the difficulties were as hard as iron. Father was unable to follow the logic of his position. He tried with all his might to defend him, but he was unsuccessful. Father would sink into musings with his head leaning on his fist. The students and I, even the Rambam himself, would tensely wait for Father's answer. But Father would pick up his head and say sadly, 'The answer will have to wait for the prophet Elijah; what the Rambam says is extremely difficult. There is not expert who can explain it. The issue remains in need of clarification.' The whole group, my father included, were sad to the point of tears. A silent agony expressed itself on each face. Tears came from my eyes, too. I would even see bright teardrops in the Rambam's eyes.

"Slowly I would go to Mother and tell her with a broken heart, 'Mother, Father can't resolve the Rambam - what should we do?'

"'Don't be sad,' Mother would answer, 'Father will find a solution for the Rambam. And if he doesn't find one, then maybe when you grow up you will resolve his words. The main thing is to learn Torah with joy and excitement."

"This experience belongs to my childhood. Still, it is not the golden fantasy of a little boy; the feeling in it is not mystical. It is a completely historical, psychological reality that is alive even now in the depths of my soul. When I sit down to learn Torah, I find myself immediately in the company of the sages of the masorah. The relations between us are personal. The Rambam is at my right, Rabbenu Tam at my left, Rashi sits up front and interprets, Rabbenu Tam disputes him; the Rambam issues a ruling, and the Rabad objects. They are all in my little room, sitting around my table. They look at me affectionately, enjoy arguing and studying the Talmud with me, encourage and support me the way a father does. Torah study is not solely an educational activity. It is not a merely formal, technical matter embodied in the discovery and exchange of facts. It is a powerful experience of becoming friends with many generations of Torah scholars, the joining of one spirit with another, the union of souls. Those who transmitted the Torah and those who receive it come together in one historical way-station.

"Thus, the Rambam remained my friend even after my childhood, and we are friends to this very day. Indeed, there is only one difference between my childhood experience and my present one. In my childhood, only the Rambam was my friend, while at present my study group has grown and includes many Torah scholars. All the sages of the tradition, from the days of Moses to the present, have become my friends! When I solve a problem in the Rambam's or Rabbenu Tam's writings, I see their glowing faces expressing their satisfaction. I always feel as if the Rambam and Rabbenu Tam are kissing me on the forehead and shaking my hand. This is not fantasy. It is a very deep experience. It is the experience of the transmission of the Oral Torah."

Rav Soloveitchik, And From There You Shall Seek, pp. 143-146

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