Hesped Delivered by Rav Shach zt”l On Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l


rav-aharon-kotler-3This is a translation of a hesped delivered by Rav Elazar Schach zt”l upon the passing of Rav Aharon Kotler on 2 Kislev 5723-1963.

In recent years we have lost many of the Torah giants that we had with us-Rav Issar Zalman Meltzer, the Chazon Ish, the Brisker Rav, zichronom livrachah. Although we have had no consolation, nevertheless, as long as Rav Aharon was with us we still had something to hold on to. He was the last, and now he too is no longer with us.

The Talmud tells us in Berachos that when Rav passed away his students accompanied his body to burial in another city. On their way back they decided to eat along the banks of the Danak River. After they had finished their meal, they wondered whether they should say Birkas HaMazon as a group, with one person leading, or whether each one should recite it on his own. On the one hand, they had not “reclined” to eat, as is mentioned in the Mishnah. But on the other hand, they had purposely joined together for the meal, so perhaps this was sufficient? They were unable to resolve the issue.

At that point Rav Ada bar Ahavah got up, turned the garment which he had already rent over Rav’s death, front to back, and rent it again, crying, “Rav has passed away and we do not even know how to say bentching!”

The act of rending a garment over the death of one’s mentor is an expression of the feeling of loss at his absence. The more one learned from his teacher, the greater the significance of the rending. Rav Ada realized that at the time of the first rending he had not fully appreciated the extent of their loss. They had supposed that Rav’s absence would be felt only when it came to solving complicated issues. Surely they would still be able to resolve simple matters for themselves!

But when they were unable to resolve even so simple an issue as whether to join together to bentch, they realized that they had needed their teacher even for so simple a matter. With new insight into the depth of their loss, Rav Ada arose and rent his garment once again.

We are incapable of comprehending the extent of our loss; we are such an orphaned generation. Nevertheless we must try to grasp what we can of what has happened to us.

In Melachim there is a description of the final parting between Eliyahu Hanovi and his disciple Elisha. Eliyahu asked: “What can I do for you before I am taken from you?” Elisha replied: Please, let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.” Eliyahu answered: “You have asked for something difficult. If you see me being taken from you, then it will come to pass, and if not, not.” The obvious question is, how could Eliyahu give his disciple more than he had himself? Furthermore, if such a thing is possible, then why limit it to merely a double portion?

We know that in reality it is “the blessing of Hashem which brings one wealth.” The Novi merely asks Hashem to give His blessing. But in order for that blessing to come to fruition one must have a proper vessel to receive it. We learn in Berachos that in spiritual matters a full vessel can always contain more, but an empty vessel can hold nothing. This idea is expressed in the Sefer Daniel: “he gives wisdom to the wise,” upon which Chazal comment: “Hakadosh Boruch Hu gives wisdom only to one who already has wisdom.”

The measure that Hashem gives a person depends upon the extent that he has prepared himself to be capable of receiving, which is why Eliyahu answered Elisha, “You have asked for something difficult.” In order to receive a double portion, one must first have prepared a vessel fit to receive it. If not, it is impossible to bestow such a gift.

Eliyahu told Elisha that his request would be granted “if you see me being taken from you.” In other words, Elisha must not be like the ignorant peasant, who stares in admiration at a gold watch without having any concept of its value. If that were to be his attitude at his teacher’s departure, he would receive nothing. But if he would watch and reflect on the significance of his loss, then he would be considered a worthy disciple; because of his full appreciation of his mentor Elisha would merit the double portion that he had requested. He would have prepared the necessary vessel to receive it.

As we attempt to gain some notion of Rav Aharon’s greatness-in order to appreciate the extent of our loss-we are reminded of a passage in Baba Metzi’a: Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Chiya were having a dispute. Eventually Rabbi Chanina said to Rabbi Chiya, “How can you dare to disagree with me? If, Heaven forbid, the Torah should be forgotten from Israel, I could restore it with my logic!” Rabbi Chiya responded, “How can you dare to disagree with me? I saw to it that the Torah would not be forgotten in the first place! What did I do? I went and planted flax, wove flaxen nets, trapped deer, fed their flesh to orphans, prepared scrolls from their skins, and wrote upon them the Chamisha Chumshei Torah. Then I went into town and taught the Torah to five children, and so it went on; and in this way I saw to it that the Torah would never be forgotten from Israel!”

The commentaries explain that Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Chiya disagreed how to guarantee the continuity of Torah. Was it more important for the community to have one, single outstanding scholar, whose scholarship and stature would elevate all those around him, or to produce as many disciples as possible and to insure our continuity in that way?

On the one hand, throughout the exile, wherever there was a scholar of stature, Torah survived and the Torah community remained strong. On the other hand, if one works to increase the number of yeshivos, one is guaranteeing that the Torah will never be forgotten!

We all know that Rav Aharon fulfilled both Rabbi Chanina’s ideal and that of Rabbi Chiya. Through his own brilliance and awesome scholarship he restored the clarity of the Torah, while at the same time raising legions of talmidim. He established new yeshivos and spread Torah in an incredible fashion.

At the beginning of Parshas Noach we read: “Noach walked with Hashem.” By contrast, in Parshas Chayei Sarah we are told that Avraham walked before Hashem. Rashi notes the change of wording and explains its significance. On a simple level the idea is as follows: Every person who would like to “walk with Hashem” needs His help if he is to succeed. We learn in Sukkah that “a man’s evil impulse overwhelms him daily, and were it not for the help of the Holy One, blessed be He, he would not be able to withstand it.”

Avraham, however, went beyond the level of walking with Hashem, and became a catalyst to draw others close to Hashem. Thus the Torah makes reference to the souls which Avraham and Sarah “made” in Charan, which Rashi explains, as an allusion to their disciples. This is why it is said that he walked before Hashem. In other words, he went ahead calling others to walk with Hashem, and when they did so, it was at his instigation.

This quality, too, was present in Rav Aharon. When he came to America he found a world which was very remote from the ideals of the Torah. Who had ever heard of such a thing as a kollel yungermahn, a person for whom Torah study was his full-time occupation?

With the intensity of his own scholarship, Rav Aharon was able to serve as a catalyst for others, whom he guided along the Torah way, presenting them with a comprehensive vision that was beyond compare.

At the beginning of Parshas Vayishlach we learn that to battle evil, one must employ three strategies: prayer, bribery and readiness for battle. Anyone can pursue the first two methods, prayer and bribery. As for the bribe, which Yaakov sent to his brother, we are told that “he took a gift from that which he had brought along with him.”

But it is not easy to prepare for war. It is not sufficient to use whatever one happened to bring along. One must have a great deal of knowledge and a solid understanding of the situation. One must know what to foster and what to avoid, what to accept and what to reject.

Rav Aharon knew. And when the times required it, he was the only one on the scene whose genius and understanding were comprehensive enough to know when to say “yes” and when to say “no” and to tell us what we might accept and what we must reject. Thus whenever a question arose, Rav Aharon was called upon to resolve it.

Today, having lost him, we are orphans without a father. Sometimes orphans have a father, but we are orphans who have no father. We will no longer know the satisfaction we felt when we received Rav Aharon’s responses to our queries-responses that emanated from his toil in Torah.

The Talmud Yerushalmi tells us that in his hesped for Rav Simon bar Zavid, Rav Hili quoted from the book of Iyov: “Silver has a mine, and there is a place from which gold is refinedÉbut where can wisdom be found, and where is the place of understanding?” “If silver and gold are lost they can be replaced, but when a Torah scholar passes away, who can find us a replacement for him?”

When a scholar toils over the Torah, it becomes a part of him. Thus each scholar has a unique possession which cannot be passed on to another, his own personal portion of Torah. Hashem has arranged it this way in order for us better to appreciate His greatness: for every individual scholar He has designated a unique portion of the Torah which no other scholar is able to reveal. Baruch Hashem, we have not been abandoned. It has been orphaned!

In Bereishis Rabbah Chazal quote the posuk “the sun rises and the sun sets.” They explain that before the “sun” of Moshe had set, the “sun” of Yehoshua had already risen. Nevertheless, they also tell us that Moshe Rabbeinu’s face resembled the sun, whereas Yehoshua’s face resembled only the moon. Rav Aharon’s portion has been orphaned. His clarity and brilliance are gone. The superhuman strength, which he invested in his studies twenty-four hours a day, is gone. His service of Hashem, in which he invested all of his resources, and from which he never rested, is no longer with us. Gone is the man who was so awesomely engrossed in his studies, who never rested from his labors; the man whose father-in-law, Rav IssarZalman Meltzer zt”l, testified of him that he had the mind of a genius of five hundred years ago.

All of this we have lost. Our only comfort is that, as the Rambam tells us, “every person has the freedom to direct himself onto the path of goodness andÉto become as righteous as Moshe Rabbeinu.” In the natural course of things this may not seem possible, but a ben Torah knows what heights a person can achieve through dedication and determination to improve himself. Even if one does not succeed in perfecting himself in every area, he can at least perfect himself in a few areas. All that is necessary is that one fully appreciate the resources with which he has been blessed, and use them properly-especially Torah study, and that he look to Heaven for the assistance which Hashem grants to all those who turn to Him.

Let us consider what the Sages said about hidden facets of the human personality. In Bereishis Rabbah they note that in the verse “and Kayin said to his brother HevelÉ” we are never told what Kayin actually said.

The Midrash presents two opinions. According to the first opinion, the brothers had decided to divide up the world; one would take possession of all of the land, and the other would receive all of the movable property. Then one brother said: “The land that you are standing upon is mine!” The other responded: “The clothes you are wearing are mine!” One said: “Take off the clothes!” and the other said: “Hover in the air!” In the course of this debate Kayin arose and murdered his brother.

According to the second opinion, they divided both the land and the movable property between them. What, then, was there to argue about?

One of them declared: “The Temple should be built in my portion!” The other insisted: “The Temple should be built in my portion!” The other insisted: “The Temple should be built in my portion!” It was in the course of this debate that Kayin rose up and murdered his brother.

Both opinions are valid; there is no contradiction between them. They merely illustrate different facets of human behavior. Here were two brothers, who possessed every piece of land and every object in the world. They had decided to apportion their property; one would take all of the land, and the other all of the movable property. Yet neither was satisfied with his lot. Neither one was willing to tolerate his brother and to allow him to use his property. Why was this so hard for them? After all, human beings were made in the image of Hashem! They had unlimited spiritual resources at their disposal. Man can aspire to attain the level of Moshe Rabbeinu, of whom it was said: “You have made him slightly less than an angel”!

The answer is that “the impulse of a man’s heart is evil from his youth.” His impulses threaten to overwhelm him daily, striving to destroy him spiritually. This is what causes a person to feel that although he might possess every object in the world, he cannot be satisfied so long as someone else is using them. And even if that other person be his own brother, his own flesh and blood, he can find no rest until he blurts out in his rage, “Take off those clothes; they belong to me!”

His brother shares the same feeling of deprivation. Though he owns all the land in the world-the entire globe-he cannot be happy so long as there is someone else in the world that is treading upon his property! In the end, he cannot refrain from ordering his brother to “Hover in the air!” He cannot bear the fact that there is another individual in his world! This is one facet of the man’s innate character.

However, when a person reaches a higher level, an additional facet comes into play. He argues with his fellow, who will merit to have the Beis HaMikdash built in his portion. The two brothers had still not received the Torah. The special significance of Eretz Yisrael had not yet been revealed. They had neither a Beis HaMikdash nor the korbanos. Nevertheless, they were able to appreciate how great an honor it would be to have the Temple built in their portion. And yet, despite their spiritual greatness, they were capable of making such a tragic mistake in judgment that they could sink to the level of murder!

These are two aspects of the human being. On the one hand, he is made in “the image of Hashem.” On the other hand, his impulses are “evil from his youth.” Both forces are at work in him every day, every moment, unceasingly. On force urges him to behave one way, the other, just the opposite.

There is only one way for the Jew to anchor himself squarely where he belongs: by dedicating himself to Torah study and the fear of Heaven-by using the resources we have inherited from our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov Avoseinu, who successfully passed the various tests which Hashem gave them. In the merit of the great deeds of the Patriarchs, their grandchildren were able to stand at the foot of Mt. Sinai and receive the Torah.

When we listen to a hesped, the benefit that we hope to take away with us is this: A person must never say: “Who am I? Of what importance am I?” Each and every one of us has the ability to blossom and grow into a Torah personality of stature, through his own unique portion of the Torah, which Hashem has planted within him.

This article originally appeared in Yated Neeman, Monsey NY.

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