“The Reservoir of Knowledge Was Deep and Wide” (Vol. 58, Issue 12)
It is now twenty years since I was a student in Rav Soloveitchik’s shiur at Yeshiva University; but it really does not seem as if it was that long ago. My subjective sense of time is influenced by the effect of those years on my life. No one helped shape my outlook on life as did the Rav. In class and out, he embodied the constant struggle to synthesize the holy and secular in this world. And that struggle would be a life-long effort with many fronts. The pages of the Talmud will not solve all your problems, but they will grant you the strength to struggle all the days of your life.
The classroom atmosphere was electric, as each of the sixty students sat on the edge of his seat in a lecture that would last anywhere from two to four hours, concentrating on every word that the Rav said and yet dreading being called on to read. Intense pressure packed the room, and the Rav was usually formal and impatient as he worked through the Talmudic subject matter at hand. He spoke in an academic English with a Yiddish accent, and he had everyone on edge and on his toes.
Whenever he spoke of Shabbat or Yom Tov, he encouraged us to experience the depth of the historical events that are halachically immersed with these events. The Pesach Seder is not a time to reflect and to study the Exodus, it was the challenge to reexperience these events at a banquet meal that we were to enjoy as if the Holy Temple were in existence at that very moment in our lives. Tisha B'Av was to be a time of great emotional stirrings within the Jew. We are to truly mourn the Temple's loss and still possess the optimistic hopes of the Mashiach’s imminent arrival. The dichotomy of human spirit, between past and future, between the physical and spiritual, between pain and ecstasy, were favorite themes in his lectures. The Rav possessed the unique ability of taking a simple halacha and weaving a total theology and philosophic treatise from its inner, and sometimes, hidden meaning.
One of the most impressive sights was actually not a lecture, but a lull in the Rav’s day. He was observing a Yarzheit. He would give a masterful special lecture at night, and during the following day, he fasted. He stayed all day in the Beit Midrash teaching Mishna to all who came. Then, we davened Mincha. After Mincha, we waited for Ma‘ariv, during which time the Rav sat pensively alone at a table. After all, he had just spent eight hours lecturing. He was notable to rest. Students came over to him and asked him questions -- from all over the world. One student asked the Rav about a problem he was having in a course in philosophy that he was taking at Columbia University’s graduate school program. Another student asked a question about the Thirty Years War, and the Rav quoted the Treaty of Westphalia as if it were right on the table. The reservoir of knowledge was deep and wide. He answered all comers and challenged them in return.
While the Rav has passed away, his legacy continues. The thousands of his students feel the need to record more of his teachings and to share his thoughts so that we can feel his presence eternally.
Rabbi Davis is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Hollywood-Ft. Lauderdale.