A Tale of Two Sages
A month ago, one of the greatest living sages of the Jewish people passed away. His name was Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, and if you are like the many Jews I’ve spoken with since his passing, you’ve never heard of him before. He died at the advanced age of 104, and for all those many years, it was his tiny, sparsely furnished apartment in Bnei Brak, Israel that served as a central address for visitors, students and politicians alike to beseech blessings or to discuss sensitive life and communal issues and receive sagely advice in return. His humility was legendary, as was his Torah scholarship (he penned close to twenty works on the bible, Talmud and philosophy), but all of these details are readily available in the many articles and appreciations written about him after his demise. I’d rather share with you my own encounter with this giant of a man, an encounter that took place in my late teens (almost twenty years ago) as I was studying in yeshiva in Israel and one that opened up my eyes to different models of Torah leadership.
It’s somewhat of a religious pilgrimage: Yeshiva students and seminary girls boarding buses to Jerusalem or Bnei Brak to visit the gedolim, the elderly sages of the generation. Most go in search of a blessing. A blessing for a good shidduch (“a proper mate”) being the most popular request, followed closely with requests for blessings for success in Torah study and parnassa (“good livelihoods”). I didn’t go to Bnei Brak for any sort of blessing, though a good blessing never hurt anyone! I simply felt that it would be a missed opportunity if I never met those saintly individuals living during my own lifetime.
And so it was that toward the end of a summer yeshiva semester, two of my friends and I boarded a bus to the City of Torah Sages, Bnei Brak, in the hopes of meeting and gleaning wisdom from two of the elderly guiding lights of the Jewish people, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman.
Our first stop was to Rabbi Kanievsky’s apartment and the long, winding line that was forming outside his doorway and snaking its way all the way down the external staircase to the street below. We had made it in time for his official visiting hours and waited patiently for our turns to come. Rabbi Kanievsky has a well known reputation for responding to petitioner’s questions with short, direct answers, and as we would soon see, the meetings in his home proved no exception to the rule.
With a book of Jewish content open in front of him, individuals were ushered in to his living room. The rav would look up from the _sefer_, listen to the question or request, and answer in his typical, curt fashion. The moment each visitation was finished, the rav would return to his precious study, careful not to waste any moments that presented themselves in the short intervals between visitors. You see, as much as Rabbi Kanievsky allotted time each day for those who would seek out his wisdom, it was no secret that his desire was to just as quickly return to his studies, to that elevated Torah universe steeped in wisdom and holiness. It’s as if he understood his communal responsibilities as a leader amongst the Jewish people, but didn’t want to leave Sinai for any more time than was necessary.
Reflecting upon the meeting later on that night, it occurred to me that Rabbi Kanievsky had a “Moshe personality.” He is a man of the people and yet someone considerably removed from the vast majority of us. A man inhabiting the same earth as everyone else, but whose thoughts clearly lay elsewhere. Like Moshe, Rabbi Kanievsky inspired and continues to inspire a visceral brand of fear of Heaven. For one can’t escape his invariably fiery intensity, an intensity that permeates his face and eyes at all time. It’s no exaggeration to proclaim the rabbi’s life a living testament to the Talmud’s statement, “Just as … the Revelation at Sinai was in reverence, fear, quaking, and trembling, so too here, in every generation, Torah must be studied with a sense of reverence, fear, quaking, and trembling” (Talmud Brachot 22a). It’s also no exaggeration to say that even in the brief period of time we shared together with the rabbi, we felt an increase in our awe of heaven, as if through some type of spiritual osmosis.
If a meeting with Rabbi Kanievsky was my encounter with a modern day Moshe, I was soon to meet his counterpart, a modern day Aharon, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman.
Arriving at the rabbi’s apartment at 6 Chazon Ish Street, we were surprised to see no line formed outside his doorway. We didn’t see a sign informing visitors of the proper visiting hours either. And so, with a bit of good-old-fashioned chutzpah, we knocked on the door anyway. A thirty-something year old man opened the door for us and ushered the three of us into the living room, where Rabbi Shteinman was teaching an advanced Torah lesson to married men. There was no doubt about it, we were intruding, and I for one, felt completely out of place and more than a bit uneasy.
My nerves were quickly set at ease, though, as Rabbi Shteinman warmly welcomed us in, smiled affectionately through his long salt-and-pepper beard, and interrupted his regularly scheduled class to ask each of us our names and some details about our lives. He bestowed a blessing upon us all and we left inspired by the utter love and warmth that we felt from this elderly rabbi whom we had heard much of but never met before.
The Midrash (Avos De’Reb Nosson 12:4) states that while the majority of the nation mourned Moshe upon his death (see Devarim 34:8), “the entire House of Israel”
(Bamidbar 20:29) mourned the death of Aharon. Why the difference in response? To put it simply, Aharon, as great as he was, was always a man thoroughly of the people. While Moshe was far removed on the peak of Mount Sinai, Aharon was encamped with the rest of the nation anxiously awaiting his return. The Midrash adds that (whereas Moshe inspired fear and awe in his role
as lawgiver, judge and admonisher of the people) Aharon inspired love, busy as he was advocating for peace and fellowship between man and his neighbor and man and his wife. In other words, while Moshe’s persona made known to the nation the other-worldly qualities of the Torah, Aharon was the man on the ground, there to show everyone how the Torah could be brought down to Earth and pragmatically utilized to better one’s life and the lives of all those around them.
A healthy nation needs both its Moshes and its Aharons. We need exposure to those great leaders so far removed from our regular existence as to serve as an example of what human beings can become, and we also need exposure to those great leaders whose greatness feels relatable, and therefore attainable. We need to both experience the awe of Heaven along with Heaven’s warm embrace.
With the passing of Rabbi Shteinman, I am left wondering where will we find another Aharon?