Monday, April 02, 2018

Mori ve-Rabbi, Rav Yosef Dov Ha-Levi Soloveitchik זצ"ל: A Personal Reflections on his Twenty-Fifth Yahrzeit

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the Rav's departure from the world had torn a gaping hole in the fabric of my universe (even though he had been ill and withdrawn for over seven years, and the last time we had really talked was in February, 1985).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.'

Ludwig Jesselson זצ"ל on his Twenty Fifth Yahrzeit

       Ludwig Jesselson (c. 1955) 
 About three and a half years ago, I was eating lunch at the Faculty Table at Yeshivat Har Etzion, and we were joined by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein זצ"ל. Rav Lichtenstein was in failing health, but he still made superhuman efforts to learn in the Bet Midrash, and to eat with the Ramim, as he had for over four decades. Usually, he listened to the discussion around the table, but did not participate. On this occasion, the conversation involved a significant amount of Jewish Geography, in which I participated intensely. At one point, Rav Aharon looked at me and asked: 'How is it you know so many people?'

I was surprised by the question (a result, I suppose, of a mix of reverence and inexperience --- since, of all of the members of the Rav זצ"ל's family, I had the least amount of interactions with him). After a few minutes, I walked over to him and simply said that God had blessed me with knowing many remarkable people. And it's true, I have been blessed not only to meet, but to be close to some of the most remarkable people, in many different walks of life. All of these have, to different degrees, left an impact on my life and taught me important life lessons. However, I only refer to a few of these as 'my teachers.'
One of these was Mr. Ludwig Jesselson זצ"ל, whose twenty-fifth yahrzeit was observed last Wednesday, 12 Nisan.
Mr. Jesselson (or 'Mr. J'---I would never have the audacity to presume to call him 'Luddy') was a legend in commodity trading (especially metals and their derivatives), who parlayed his firm, Phillipp Brothers aka Phibro, into a world giant during the 1970's and early 1980's (the details are here). Yet, it is not of that part of his life that I wish (or have the expertise) to write. 
I came to know Mr. Jesselson (and his wife and partner, Erica nee Pappenheim) when we moved to Riverdale in the Fall of 1984, as I assumed the position of Assistant Rabbi (and then, Scholar in Residence) of the Riverdale Jewish Center, where the Jesselsons attended (and which they had helped found). Almost from the start, we developed a long, warm and affectionate relationship. Our family became part of the Jesselsons' extended family. Mr. Jesselson attended every one of my Shabbat afternoon lectures, andd many others. He was passionately interested in History, and he was a voracious reader. I became a sort of resource person for him. We shared the same weltanschauung (Mrs. J preferred to use the term Hasqafa), and I was privileged to be involved in many project that the Jesselsons undertook to advance Modern Orthodoxy (a number of which, I have to confess, also involved positions where I might best develop my talents, and put them to use) In addition, he was a major source of encouragement regarding my plans for Aliyah. In a very understated manner (appropriate for German-Jews), I tried to express my feelings toward them in the introduction to my doctorate (1991).

Mr. Jesselson was an inspiration to untold numbers of people. After Mrs. J returned from Israel, following his passing a few days before Pesach, we sat together as she read through the hundreds of faxes that she'd received expressing shock and grief. As she read them, she kept reacting to one consistent theme: "How can so many people feel as if he was their best friend?'  And yet, that was Mr. Jesselson. He treated everyone with grace, respect, and concern...from the shoe shine man whom he took off of the street (and to whom he gave a job) to Rabbis, captains of industry, and Heads of State. 
Yet the Jesselsons did not confine their concern to words, or small gestures. They were, as many said at the time 'Princes of Philanthropy.' Mr. Jesselson was emphatic that if God blessed him with great wealth, it was for the sole purpose of helping others. And he helped others on a scale that beggars the imagination and, overwhelmingly, did so anonymously. In his philanthropy, which included both Jewish and non-Jewish causes and individuals, he was guided by the Torah's imperative to see every person as having been created in the image of God. That devotion to Torah guided many of the Jesselsons' philanthropic priorities. They were wholly committed to Modern Orthodoxy, to Torah uMadda, It is not a coincidence that the only buildings that bear their names belong to institutions that represent their highest values: SAR Academy, the Jesselson Wing of Shaare Zedek Hospital, and the Jesselson Institute for Higher Torah Studies at Bar Ilan University (which is not to understate his devotion to Yeshiva University, whose Chairman of the Board he was). 
Zionism, and support of the State of Israel, was a central part of Torah in the Jesselsons' world view. They supported countless Israeli cultural and religious institutions (Midresher Amaliah--named for his mother, the Israel Museum, the National Library, the IPO, Bar Ilan University and much more) and had lasting friendships with Israeli leaders and diplomats. (And in in the process, educated many of them about Shabbat and Hagim, Torah and Tradition--- all by dint of personal example.)
One person with whom Mr. J had a very close relationship was the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin ז"ל. And it is one episode of that friendship that I'd like to relate, as it says alot about Mr. Jesselson's lighter side (and as I was directly involved):
Sometime in the late 80's, I walked into the Riverdale Jewish Center on Shabbat Morning, and Mr. Jesselson came rushing over to me. With a mix of emphasis and exasperation, he said: 'I want you to help me. Yitzhak Rabin was at our house for dinner last night, and we had an argument.' I was somewhat taken aback. How,exactly, was I supposed to resolve this argument? And Mr. J explained: 'I said that there Feisal was the King of Syria after World War I and Rabin denied it; that Faisal was only King of Iraq. I want you to prove that I'm right' 
I tried to object that the Middle East in the early Twentieth Century was not exactly my area of expertise, but Mr. J was adamant: 'You're an historian. I know I'm right. Find me the proof.' So I was off. Now, this was during the years before the Internet, before Wikipedia. I started making inquiries, and always came up with same answer: After WWI, Abdullah was the Emir of Transjordan and Faisal was the King of Iraq. After a week, I saw Mr. Jesselson in Shul and reported my findings. He replied: 'Keep Looking.'
So, I kept looking. As it happens, my brother had trained as a Diplomat at SAIS under Majid Khaddouri and Fouad Ajami, so I phoned him. He was, at the time, working at the Port Authority of NY and NJ, which had a good library (I didn't have access to Butler LIbrary at Columbia). He checked and found that for four months, from March to July 1920, the British installed Faisal bin Hussein as King of Greater Syria, until he was evicted by the French who had received the mandate for Syria at the San Remo Conference that year. So, Mr. Jesselson was correct.  I asked my brother to xerox the relevant pages and mail them to me.
When the pages arrived, I called Mr. J's office and told the secretary, Mrs. Sarfati, that I had material for him. She informed me that Mr. Jesselson was in Alaska on a yacht, fishing. HOWEVER, there was a fax on board. So, if I could fax her the pages she would send them on. This was before faxes were common. I had access to one of the few machines in Riverdale, at the Riverdale YM-YWHA. I drove over, and faxed the sheets from the book to Mrs. Sarfaty. She, then, faxed them to the yacht, off the coast of Alaska. Mr. Jesselson had the fax number in Rabin's office at the Israeli Defense Ministry, and off went the proof. When I next saw Mr. Jesselson in shul, he was, needless to say, very pleased (as was I).
There is so much more that I could say. However, if the Jesselson's guarded anything, it was their privacy (and it is no coincidence that there is only one picture of him on the Internet). Despite being, by all accounts, the wealthiest man in the area, his home was incredibly modest. Modesty of character was one of his shining qualities, which won the hearts of so many, and my eternal affection, reverence and gratitude.

I started this post with the assertion that I consider Mr. Jesselson to have been one of my chief teachers. The lessons I learned from him, both in word and deed, were many. Among them: 1) Believe in yourself. 2) Know who you are, and who you are not. 3)The only bad news involves matters of Life and Death. everything else can be overcome.  4) Kiddush Levana is a very important mitzvah. It teaches us to have hope and overcome the darkness, based on the belief that the light will come. 5) God put us on earth, and gave us gifts in order to give back to Him, to the Jewish People and the world. That's why when we repay Him, we should not seek honor or glory in doing so.   

תהי נשמת משה אריה בן החבר שמואל זצ"ל
צרורה בצרור החיים ותהי מנוחתו כבוד