It was a call that I was theoretically expecting and for which I was still totally unprepared. It was Thursday evening, April 8, 1993, the eighteenth of Nisan 5753 and I was sitting at my desk still trying to fathom the passing of one of my mentors, Ludwig Jesselson, the previous Shabbat. The phone rang. At the other end was Prof. Henry Lisman ז"ל, a dear friend and the Rav's brother-in law. His voice was soft and solemn. 'That which we most feared has finally happened,' he said. I knew immediately what he meant. The funeral would be Sunday, the eve of the last days of Pesach, in order to allow the members of the Lichtenstein family to arrive in the United States. We agreed that I would drive him and Mrs. Lisman (who was Rebbetzin Dr. Tonya Lewitt Soloveitchik ז"ל's sister) to Boston, along with one of the Rav's earliest star students, Rabbi Prof. Chaim Danishevsky זצ"ל and one other person. I hung up the receiver, and sat in stunned silence.
Hazal, in describing the initial stage of mourning, speak of שעת חימום, a moment of intense, heated angst and pain (Moed Qatan 24a). It is that moment, according to Halakhah that generates the obligation/impulse to tear one's clothes. Strangely, I did not experience that moment of stabbing shock. I felt a deep, chilling and paralyzing ache that left me stunned and numb. I felt as if the Rav's departure from the world had torn a gaping hole in the fabric of my universe (even though he had been ill and withdrawn for over seven years, and the last time we had really talked was in February, 1985). Oddly enough, that yawning chasm remains with me to this day, twenty-five years later.
This state of mind is very hard to explain to anyone who has not had the privilege of being the disciple of a great religious personality (the Rav's reminiscences of Rav Kook come to mind). Encountering such a personality is a transformative experience, especially when that personality instills in you a combination of Reverance and Deference to God and Torah, while pushing you to grow into an independent and courageous Servus Dei. Being the disciple of the Rav ushered us into a realm of existence wherein, as Rav Prof. Haym Soloveitchik put it in his unforgettable eulogy of his father, everything outside the Rav's Shiur (especially in Talmud, but also in Humash or Jewish Thought) was not only unimportant, it was insignificant. In those moments, we experienced a timeless passing on of Torah and Tradition, which was marked by Love and intense spiritual yearning and intellectual aspiration; and by the awareness, again formulated exquisitely by Prof. Soloveitchik, that the Rav and his disciples were bound to one another by the common shared awareness that without him, as our Rebbe, we were incapable of being what we were (or aspired to be), and that (as incredible as it still sounds to me) without us as talmidim, he could not have been who he was.
That sense of bonding remains very real for me, a quarter of a century later (and unites Talmidim who span the generations, when they meet and share ideas, interpretations and memories.) On the one hand, personally, I know that I have striven to develop into an independent person, and forge my way in the world of Avodat HaShem, of Talmud Torah and Shemirat Mitzvot. My goal, sadly only partially realized, was to seek to realize the mandate/blessing he gave me the day before my wedding; viz. to become 'a lamdan in the widest sense of the term.' Certainly, there are positions and decisions I took with which he would have disagreed (though, I hope he would have respected them). Still, even when I reached such decisions, it was the Rav's teachings and method, and personal example that really grounded and oriented me throughout. In that, very deep and profound sense, I feel a contradictory reaction to his passing. On the one hand, I miss his availability. There is not a day that goes by that I do not wish I could write or speak with him to help me make sense of an increasingly neurotic. On the other hand, by studying and engaging his teachings I feel like my discipleship has never ended. [Indeed, it was my beloved, lamented friend, R. Dr. David Applebaum הי"ד who described the experience, after the passing of his Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik זצ"ל in 2001.]
So, perhaps, that is why I felt no שעת חימום a quarter of a century ago. As Prof Soloveitchik said as he concluded his eulogy:
'And so, they bonded and have remained so even now that נפשו צרורה בצרור החיים.'