‘And they also prophesied’


Harav_Aharon_Lichtenstein_portrait_175x175AT a certain point, King Saul of ancient Israel bore great enmity to David. The King dispatched his emissaries to take David when David was with Samuel the Prophet and with Samuel’s band of Prophets.

King Saul’s emissaries obeyed, setting out to capture David so that King Saul could harm him. But when these emissaries reached David, it is recorded in the book of I Samuel 19:20, “and they also prophesied.”

Again King Saul dispatched emissaries, with the same purpose, and again Scripture records, “and they also prophesied.” The same act by the King, with the same result, occurred a third time. King Saul’s intentions came to naught, and yet, why? What happened?

Nowhere in Scripture does it say why these emissaries, instruments of evil, suddenly prophesied, nor does Scripture relate that they had a change of heart, that they repented, and out of repentance they attained the stature of Prophets. Nor does Scripture record what they prophesied. Scripture does not even state that because they prophesied, their evil mission was aborted. The first book of Samuel simply says, “and they also prophesied.”

Despite the absence of data in the Biblical record, both on what made the King’s emissaries prophesy and on its effect on them, it seems clear what happened. Men, bent on one purpose, came within the field of Samuel the Prophet, and within the field of his band of Prophets. That spiritual field was so pervasive, so “thick” (so to speak), that the field suffused these men. It transformed them. Once transformed, it could not be imagined that they would take David, nor was it necessary to say as much. “And they prophesied.” They became wholly different people. They changed. They ascended. They embraced the spiritual life.

They did so without even speaking with Samuel the Prophet. Scripture records no words exchanged between them. Merely to be within the field of the Prophets of the Creator altered their plans and altered their very selves.

THESE thoughts came to mind as I listened to eminent people struggle to find the right words to express their gratitude to, and admiration for, Rav (Rabbi) Aharon Lichtenstein. He was honored at a dinner last Sunday night for 50 years of service to the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University, and for disseminating Torah in the Diaspora and in Israel more generally. Concurrent with his teaching at the RIETS branch in Israel, he has been the dean or rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Gush Etzion in Israel for the past 40 years.

This dinner was different. It began not with the smorgasbord, but with two formal lectures in Talmud. Ironically, the second of these lectures, delivered by Rabbi Michael Rosensweig, dealt with the topic of “adding to” or “subtracting from” the Torah (bal tosif; e.g., marking Shabbos two days during the week). I say ironically, because, as Rabbi Rosensweig pointed out, “whoever adds, subtracts.” The meaning and the purpose of a mitzvah, and of the Torah, is cancelled if it is added to, however well meaning the intention behind the addition.

From the speakers honoring Rav Lichtenstein, the adjectives flowed. Yet, the more words of praise added, the more elusive the goal of capturing and appraising his impact. “Whoever adds, subtracts.” The description of some individuals falls readily within the range of human expression, and the fine artist, the poet or the literary craftsman can capture those individuals. Not so with Rav Lichtenstein.

To be within his field, to study at his feet, to watch his mind and soul soar, to be astounded at his range of mind and of emotion, to be stuck by his insights into the Torah, is to be transformed. It is to ascend, to embrace the spiritual life. “And they also prophesied.”

Another irony: Rav Lichtenstein’s son Mosheh, rosh yeshiva in Har Etzion, delivered the first Talmud lecture preceding the dinner, and he addressed the question as to why relatives are forbidden from testifying in court on behalf of, or against, another relative. One might naturally think that the answer is that relatives are biased; their testimony is unreliable.

However, Rav Lichtenstein’s son pointed to an alternative: Testimony in a court is not the mere presentation of a photo of the event, so to speak. Rather, the witness is a participant; he is offended by the crime and that motivates him to testify. The Torah disqualifies relatives so as not to put them into the position of being a participant in a family member’s potentially worst moment.

I say this is ironic because to have studied with Rav Lichtenstein is to have been drawn into a relationship, to have become a participant. His students did not merely absorb information, dramatic as the way that information, both in quality and quantity, was presented. Students were altered by Rav Lichtenstein. Transformed beyond recognition — mostly, beyond the recognition of themselves, by themselves. “And they [students of Rav Lichtenstein] also prophesied”; no delineation of causality was necessary or possible. His students embraced the spiritual life. They did not even need to talk to Rav Lichtenstein. Listening was sufficient.

SOMETIMES, not even listening was necessary.

Yes, as it was stated at the dinner, the mind of Rav Lichtenstein stretches across the entire Talmud, encompassing every single paragraph in Maimonides’ code (and who knows how much more). Yes, his creative touch transforms those lines and brings them to penetrating relevance, including for people trained in the idiom of philosophy, literature or law. And, yes, beyond that, Rav Lichtenstein’s character, his personal qualities, his integrity, his humility, his scrupulous avoidance of gossip and slander (rechilut and leshon ha-ra), are themselves teachers and transformers of students thirsty for closeness to G-d.

Still, in all this, there is human interaction, at least on some level. But to watch Rav Lichtenstein pray — for that, not even listening is necessary, still less for words to be exchanged between mentor and disciple. Again, no causality is perceived. Rav Lichtenstein prayed . . . and they, his students, prophesied, as it were.

In the sense that Torah study brings a student closer to G-d, Torah study is a form of prayer. Once, Rabbi Berel Gershenfeld, who heads Machon Shlomo in Jerusalem, and who had never seen Rav Lichtenstein study Torah — found himself on the same flight, sitting across the aisle, a few rows back. This was a trans-Atlantic flight, 12 hours. A long time. Rabbi Gershenfeld watched Rav Lichtenstein study — not in an atmosphere conducive to Torah study. There on the plane sat Rav Lichtenstein, pouring over advanced texts, struggling to grasp them, so absorbed in them that sweat was evident on his brow. Rabbi Gershenfeld slept part of the way, but when he awoke he noticed Rav Lichtenstein still studying, and still sweating, the same as before, without interruption. The student was struck. Ennobled. Instructed. “And they also prophesied.”

EVEN if unrecorded in Scripture, there was content to the prophesies of those emissaries of King Saul. And there was content to the evening of tribute. Rav Lichtenstein, whose life has been devoted to the dissemination of Torah, focused on the siddur, the prayer book, as the prism through which to encapsulate his passion for Torah.

Three blessings precede the morning service every day, “the blessings over the Torah.” The first blessing affirms that G-d commanded every Jew to study Torah. The second blessing requests that the words of “Your Torah” be pleasant or sweet “in our mouths and in the mouths of Your people, the house of Israel.” The third blessing affirms the chosenness of Israel by virtue of Israel having received the Torah from G-d. Said Rav Lichtenstein, in his address to the dinner:

In Kantian ethics, duty is central. Should there be any pleasure experienced in the course of fulfilling one’s duty, then the performance of that duty is diminished. In hedonism, pleasure is central. Should there be any sense of duty in the pursuit of pleasure, then that pleasure is diminished.

In Judaism, duty and pleasure are not mutually exclusive. The first of the three “blessings over the Torah” affirms the command of   G-d — the duty of each Jew — to study the Torah. The second blessing affirms the sweetness and pleasantness in the performance of this duty. Duty and pleasure are not mutually exclusive. The duty to study Torah is not diminished by the sweetness of its study, and the sweetness of its study is not diminished by the fact that it is a duty to study it. Then, the third blessing, affirming the chosenness of Israel, prompts gratitude. And gratitude for, and pleasure in, studying the Torah are but two sides of the same coin.

Alas, I summarize. The words of Rav Lichtenstein himself ascend and acquire so much more power, resembling something that might be as close to prophecy as possible in this era. At the dinner, each attendee received a copy of the newly published Koren siddur, presenting the commentary of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on prayer, and published with the leadership of the family of Julius and Dorothy Berman, who were honored alongside Rav Lichtenstein at the RIETS dinner.

In an introduction to the siddur, Rav Lichtenstein writes of the way Rabbi Soloveitchik saw man as existing on two levels. “On the one hand, he possesses power, ability, and creativity; on the other hand, he is a helpless creature, suspended over the abyss.”

Extending this, Rav Lichtenstein then writes of the way Rabbi Soloveitchik saw the great leaders of the Jewish people, the great Torah scholars, as also existing on two levels. He delineated a dialectic “in the great Torah luminaries of Israel, at one plane, describing their great intellects and depicting them as giants, conquerors, creators and builders, warriors in the battles of Torah, even as, at the same time, he pointed to their child-like innocence and quasi-poetic naivete.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik was depicting his son-in-law, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein.

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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