“Parsha and Purpose” – Behar/Bechukotai 5782

“Parsha and Purpose” – Behar/Bechukotai 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

Sefirat Ha-Omer: Repairing and Redeeming Society

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Parshat Behar (Diaspora) and Parshat Bechukotai (Israel)

Sefirat Ha-Omer: Repairing and Redeeming Society

It was March of 1986, the week of Ta’anit Esther and Purim. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who traveled each week from his home in Boston to New York City in order to give shiur at Yeshiva University, had come in a day earlier than usual in order to give shiur before Purim, in order not to lose that week of presenting shiur to his students.

On that same day that Rabbi Soloveitchik arrived, the sad news came that Rav Moshe Feinstein had passed away.

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s family had asked some of his students to make sure that he was not informed of this tragic occurrence for fear that his failing health would be further harmed as a consequence of hearing that Rav Moshe Feinstein – who was not only a relative but a very close friend – had passed away.

So we had a mission to make sure that the one day that Rabbi Soloveitchik was in New York, he was not informed of the passing of Rav Moshe.

Accordingly, the New York Times that he received every morning, did not arrive at his apartment, ‘oddly enough’. And the radio from which normally he listened to the news every morning, was somehow not functioning that day.

A few weeks later, soon before Pesach, Rabbi Soloveitchik was about to travel back to Boston to celebrate Pesach with his family. Someone placed a phone call for Rav Hershel Schachter, shlita, the Rosh Kollel of YU’s kollel, asking him to let one of the students who studied in the kollel – namely, myself – to drive Rabbi Soloveitchik to the airport for his return trip to Boston.

Rabbi Schachter came into the beit midrash, informed me of this request, and of course, I drove Rabbi Soloveitchik to the airport.

As we were driving on the Grand Central Parkway to LaGuardia Airport to catch Rabbi Soloveitchik’s flight on the Eastern Airlines shuttle, Rabbi Soloveitchik turned to me and asked, “Why didn’t you tell me that Rav Moshe Feinstein passed away?”

Even while I share this story with you several years later, I can still feel the challenge of staying in the lane on the Grand Central Parkway when Rabbi Soloveitchik asked me that very terrifying question.

Moments later, which seemed like hours, I responded to Rabbi Soloveitchik: “We didn’t inform you because your family asked us not to.”

And several moments of total, deafening silence in the car, I asked Rabbi Soloveitchik:

“Rebbe, how did you find out? After all, you didn’t receive the New York Times that day, and WINS News wasn’t functioning on your radio. So how did you hear about this?”

He turned to me and said: “It’s Erev Pesach. It was Rav Moshe Feinstein’s turn to call me to wish me ‘A Guten Yontif’, and if he didn’t call me before Yontif, there can only be one reason…”

The respect that two Gedolim had for each other: it was not just that Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rav Moshe Feinstein were cousins. That was the smallest connection that they had with each other. It was not that they agreed on everything.

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s approach to women learning Torah She’bal Peh was different from that of Rav Feinstein’s. Rabbi Soloveitchik views about general academic studies were different from those held by Rav Feinstein.

But they respected each other. They talked to each other. They engaged in conversations with each other. And if one did not call the other before the chag, there could only be one reason: one was no longer in this world.

We are in the midst of Sefirat HaOmer. We spoke last week about the Biblical context of Sefirat HaOmer, but there is also a Rabbinic overlay: the mourning, because “לא נהגו כבוד זה בזה”, because Rabbi Akiva’s students did not respect one another. [Yevamot 62b]

And we commemorate that loss of Rabbi Akiva students which happened during the Bar Kokhba Revolt, specifically, during this period of time between Pesach and Shavuot, because we cannot be a free people, we cannot be people who embrace the covenantal relationship, if we don’t respect each other.

That is the message of Sefirat HaOmer: you cannot engage with God if you are not willing to engage with respect for the other.

This week, we also note the fact that Rabbi Riskin has made a decision to conclude presenting his weekly video on Parshat HaShavua, which he has provided every week for 13 years.

And it’s important that we recognize the fact that Rabbi Riskin’s entire life – “Ad Meah v’Esrim” (may he live to 120) – has always been a celebration of treating the other with respect, with dignity, of making sure that we create “geulah” by making sure that no one is treated as a “gola” (somebody who feels that they are in exile.)

Please, God, we will continue to benefit from the wisdom of Rabbi Riskin. And please, God, we will understand the message between Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Soloveitchik. And through our activities, may we respond to the aveilut that we are commemorating, thereby guaranteeing the redemption of the Jewish people and of society through the mutual respect that we have for the other.

Shabbat Shalom.

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