This week we lost two towering giants of Torah and avodah. Rav Dovid Soloveitchik passed away at the age of 99 and Rav Yitzchok Scheiner passed away at the age of 98. They lived within a few blocks of each other for most of their lives, though they got there from opposite directions. Klal Yisroel has not suffered a day such as this in our lifetimes.
Rav Dovid was the last surviving son of the Brisker Rov and heir to all that Bais Brisk is famous for. He was steeped in gadlus from a young age, serving as an example of untainted devotion to Torah and its treasured principles, never deviating an iota from them. Since he was a youngster in Brisk, through the war years, and since settling in Yerushalayim, he was areingeton in learning and teaching Torah.
We get an idea of what it meant to grow up as a son of the Brisker Rov from the way the Rov himself grew up. Rav Dovid recounted that when his father, Rav Velvel, was a young child, Rav Velvel’s father, Rav Chaim, saw that he was speaking to another youngster on Tisha B’Av. “What were you discussing?” asked Rav Chaim. The young Velvel answered that he was depicting to the boy the churban as described in Perek Hanizokin in Maseches Gittin.
“And how did the boy respond to what you told him?” the father asked the son.
“He told me that there is another version of the story in a book [written by a maskil].”
Rav Chaim told his young son that he must know that the boy is an apikores and that he must not be in his dalet amos.
That is the chinuch of Brisk, inculcating children from a young age to know what is right and what is wrong and to offer no excuses for anything or anyone who deviates from the truth of our mesorah.
Rav Dovid was a product of that chinuch and embodied Brisk in all he did. The lives of products of that chinuch revolve totally around Torah, the essence of which is emes, truth.
Rav Scheiner came from a very different world. Born to frum parents in Pittsburgh, he was educated in public school and enrolled in university before an enterprising meshulach by the name of Rav Avrohom Bender convinced his parents to send him to yeshiva in New York. Being in Pittsburgh, they didn’t know that there was a yeshiva in New York where they could send their son. In fact, they were happy to send him away from home, because Yitzchok had an irreligious cousin who would come over to play with him and they worried that he was a bad influence.
Rav Scheiner would say, “My career as a Jew began when I entered Mesivta Torah Vodaas… It began in a camp. The only yeshiva that was worth the name of a yeshiva had a summer camp and I was ill and needed a summer camp. So, I had a good time playing ball and I learned what it meant to be a Jew… The rebbe, Rav Shraga Feivel [Mendlowitz], made Yiddishkeit in America and he made me for a Jew.”
That was how Rav Scheiner was introduced to serious Torah learning at Torah Vodaas at the age of 18. Within a few years, he mastered learning and rose to the top. In fact, the rosh yeshiva, Rav Reuvein Grozovksy, wanted him as a son-in-law. When that didn’t work out, Rav Reuvein suggested him for the daughter of his brother-in-law, Rav Moshe Berenstein, who, like Rav Reuvein, was a son-in-law of Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz, the prince of Torah and prime talmid of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik.
Rav Scheiner assumed his father-in-law’s position as rosh yeshiva of the Kamenitz Yeshiva in Yerushalayim upon his passing. He greatly expanded the yeshiva and led it faithfully until his passing.
Rav Soloveitchik began his career in harbotzas Torah saying chaburos in Kodshim sugyos to bochurim from Yeshivas Chevron. After his father’s passing, his older brother, Rav Berel, assumed his mantle. Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel, who was rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir and close to the family, encouraged Rav Dovid to open a yeshiva and learn with talmidim. He did so, leading the yeshiva with great dedication, and saying shiurim until very recently.
Rav Leizer Yudel was fundamental in the harbotzas haTorah of Rav Scheiner as well. When he took over the Kamenitz Yeshiva together with his brother-in-law upon the passing of their father-in-law, they were quite young and were unable to raise the funds necessary to keep the yeshiva open and functioning. Rav Leizer Yudel told them to come to him every Rosh Chodesh and he would help them out. It was the money that he gave them that allowed the yeshiva to continue and allowed them to be marbitzei Torah.
One came from the firm chinuch of Brisk and the other came from public school, but they both ended up being on top of the yeshiva world. They both worked very hard in Torah, lived their lives lesheim Shomayim, outstanding examples of what it means to be ehrliche Yidden, one on Rechov Amos and the other a stone’s throw away on Rechov Tzefania.
They were different, but they were the same. Torah is what identified them and was their life’s mission.
Rav Dovid was a scion of greatness. Everything he said was measured and clearly thought through. Like his father and the other members of that illustrious family, his dikduk b’mitzvos was legendary. His only concern in life was to please Hashem. He had no interest in anything to do with olam hazeh. He worked day and night to understand every word of Gemara, Medrash and Chazal. It was his life. When he was learning a sugya, all his energy was utilized to really understand every word and concept. When he was doing a mitzvah, his entire being was invested in ensuring that he performed that mitzvah as best as humanly possible. When he gave a shiur, he made sure to fully comprehend the concepts he was discussing, and to express them in a way that those listening could gain and understand.
He was never nispoel from anything or anyone who wasn’t Torah-based. And there were never any exceptions.
He embraced the simplicity and majesty of Brisk, through personal conduct, devotion to halacha and mesorah, and living the life of a real ben chorin, dedicated to learned and teaching Torah.
Rav Scheiner was the same way. With unfailing emunah and bitachon, he demonstrated the way a Jew should live, what should be important to us, and that the material is immaterial when it comes to living a Torah life.
They both lived in small apartments, piled with seforim and infused with Torah. They both spent their days and nights learning and hureving in Torah. They had no concern for anything outside of the dalet amos shel halacha unless it related to Torah. They were as humble and self-effacing as people could be. They were both gedolim in hasmodah and pashtus and histapkus bemuat, all that we are supposed to aim for. They defined what it means to be an ehrliche Yid, a person who lives constantly with the objective of fulfilling chovaso b’olamo and nothing else.
Rav Velvel Soloveitchik, the son of Rav Dovid who inherited his position, summed up what his father was about: “Der tatteh hot farmukt der gantzeh shleimus fun yiddishkeit. My father embodied everything that is Yiddishkeit.”
Rav Dovid embodied ehrlichkeit. He embodied ameilus baTorah. He embodied dikduk bemitzvos. He embodied bittul hagashmiyus. He embodied everything that is good and special about Yidden.
And although he was on an exalted level, he was attached to his talmidim. He was able to touch the mochos and neshamos of American bochurim who would learn by him. He led them higher than they ever dreamt they could go. He would give them mussar, beginning from where others would end. He would painstakingly explain the Brisker shitah on various issues of the day and on hashkofah in general. Everything he said was based on what he had heard from his father, backed up by ma’amorei Chazal. He laid it out so clearly and with such honesty and humility that by the time he was done, it was hard to argue with what he had said. Everyone was affected and forever changed as he shed light on different issues.
No serious person who learned in his yeshiva ever looked at the world and at learning the same way again.
Rav Dovid was an ambassador of a world gone by. Born in Brisk on Erev Sukkos, as a teenager he was a refugee on the run from the Germans who wanted him and his people dead. He lived through bombardments and terror that he never forgot. He lost his mother and several siblings to the horrors of the war. Exactly eighty years ago, on Erev Shabbos Parshas Yisro he arrived with his father in Eretz Yisroel.
Essentially, he never left Brisk. He was here, but he was really there. His life was Brisk. His Torah was Brisk. His shemiras hamitzvos was Brisk. His stories were Brisk. He was the spiritual Brisk of 100 years ago. He walked among us, but was unaffected and uninfluenced by anything that happened today.
His great-grandfather, grandfather and father lived on in his mind. He was their ambassador, representing them, transmitting their Torah, their teachings, their thoughts, their anecdotes, their outlook on life, their mesorah, and their hashkofah to a new world that had grown up following the destruction of physical Brisk and that entire milieu.
His home and yeshiva were embassies showing a confounded world how to live and how to learn. When you stepped into his home, you stepped back in time. It was quite fitting that he lived on Rechov Amos, named for the novi Amos, who foretold of our day: “Hinei yomim bo’im.” Hashem says: “Behold days are coming in which there will be a tremendous hunger, not a hunger for bread and not a thirst for water, ki im lishmoa es divrei Hashem.’”
Those days have come.
Following the churban that Rav Dovid lived through, we have been resurrected. We are a nation hungering for Torah. Rav Dovid stepped into the breach created by his father’s passing, and together with his brothers, he showed thousands how to approach, study and observe the divrei Hashem.
We have all heard of Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, but very few people alive today ever saw him or studied under him. Rav Scheiner was his ambassador in Eretz Yisroel and later on in America as well. Back in the day, when Rav Scheiner learned there, Torah Vodaas was the prime bastion of Torah, as Rav Mendlowitz and Rav Shlomo Heiman, and later Rav Reuvein Grozovsky, painstakingly raised a cadre of bnei Torah who would go on to spread Torah to the masses. Rav Scheiner epitomized that world with his smile, simplicity and warmth, coupled with greatness in Torah, embracing and charging generations of students.
And like Rav Dovid, his softness disappeared when it came to Torah. When he was learning, he was like a lion seeking the truth in every sugya, and when someone said a sevorah that he disagreed with, he fought for the truth.
I did not learn in Rav Dovid’s yeshiva. I learned in the yeshiva across the street on Rechov Reishis Chochmah and would regularly see him. The way he walked in the street was awe-inspiring, as he went about his business always with an austere look on his face. In conversation, he exhibited bursts of good humor, but otherwise he was deep in thought, considering things much more important than what was going on around him.
I had arrived as a bochur in Yerushalayim during Elul and found a dirah up the street from Rav Dovid on Rechov Ovadia. On Sukkos, the custom in Brisk is to make a brocha on the rosh yeshiva’s esrog and lulav. I was new to the Brisker habits and figured that instead of trekking the distance to Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Soloveitchik to make the brocha, I would take a few steps and go to Rav Dovid.
I got on the line and noticed that he was eyeing me as I waited. When it came my turn, he didn’t want to let me hold the esrog. He didn’t recognize me and was concerned that perhaps I would not have in mind when lifting the esrog that I will immediately return it to him as halacha dictates, or perhaps I would not handle it properly and thus render it unfit.
I told him that I was “Keller’s cousin” and that he could trust me. He said, “An einikel fun Rav Levin? Are you a grandson of Rav Leizer Levin?” When I answered in the affirmative, he smiled, welcomed me, and handed me the esrog “al menas lehachzir.”
I inquired and found out that the Brisker Rov had once given a shlichus to Rav Levin to perform and was happy with the way he had fulfilled the Rov’s request. Rav Levin earned the Rov’s respect and that of his children and family.
Later that year, I got married in Yerushalayim and Rav Dovid visited my zaide, Rav Levin, who had come for the wedding, in the apartment I had just moved into in Ezras Torah. I had nothing to offer him besides boiled water, and he made a lechayim on that and showered me with brachos. It was a special honor.
As a bochur, I also came to know Rav Yitzchok Scheiner and ate Shabbos meals at his home several times. He was always unfailingly kind and welcoming. His wife was a tzadeikes. Stepping into their apartment, I felt as if I was in a different world, the world of Shabbos.
The room was lit by a couple of small battery-powered low-watt bulbs. The dining room shined with a holy glow. Everything was as simple as could be, but seemed as beautiful as any Shabbos table anywhere. There was some small talk, but most of the conversation was in learning.
The walls were lined with well-worn seforim, double stacked on shelves, and piled high. I knew that after I left, he would be sitting by the table for hours with those seforim.
Rav Dovid would tell his talmidim that in every situation, even when momentous happenings are occurring in the world, our primary consideration should be to consider what the Torah demands of us in a time like this. Performing mitzvos is the most important thing in the world, and everything else that takes place is nothing when compared to a “maaseh mitzvah.”
He would say that what is going on around us and in the world should have no impact on how we observe mitzvos. He gave an example to drive home his point. During the devastating earthquake in Tzefas 184 years ago, there was understandably a great commotion as people shrieked and ran for their lives. There was a tzaddik who shouted to people to recite the brocha of “oseh maaseh bereishis,” which is said in times such as then. This is the way we are supposed to live. Our primary thought should be to consider what the Torah wants us to do in any given situation.
With this, Rav Dovid would explain the incident at the beginning of Parshas Vayeira. While Hashem was speaking to Avrohom following his bris, Avrohom noticed three travelers headed his way. He interrupted his conversation with Hashem to tend to the unknown people.
The question is often asked why Avrohom interrupted his conversation with Hashem because of a couple of hot, thirsty wanderers. Rav Dovid would say that if Rabbon Shimon Bar Yochai, or the Vilna Gaon, or the Arizal, or the Chofetz Chaim would come to visit you, you would be so overjoyed that you would ignore everything else and bask in the glow of your visitor. How is it that Avrohom forfeited the greatest zechus possible because of some strangers?
He would answer that while gilui Shechinah is the loftiest level a person can achieve, it is not a mitzvah. Hachnosas orchim is a mitzvah and therefore takes precedence.
Only a holy person whose life revolved around fulfilling mitzvos could conceive of that p’shat. That person was Rav Dovid Soloveitchik. The man who sat and learned Torah as his life was upended and bombs were falling all around him. The man who didn’t care for anything that was tied to the physicality of olam hazeh.
Thankfully, Bais Brisk endures, as the next generations continue teaching and spreading its Torah and messages to bnei Torah from the world over who are attracted to the yeshivos of Brisk, where their minds are shaped and neshamos become loftier and holier. They go on to impact their children and talmidim, spreading the emes and derech hachaim of Brisk yet further.
Rav Scheiner passed away during the levayah of Rav Dovid. People may wonder how they can be expected to reach the level of Rav Dovid, who was infused with gadlus and Toras Brisk from the time he learned to speak and was a vestige of a world gone by. A person may think to himself: I was born in America to a simple good family, far from Brisk and all that it represents. I grew up in olam hazeh with the Yankees, pizza, and Coca Cola. It is impossible for me to reach such heights.
Rav Yitzchok Scheiner is the response to those questions. He grew up far from a Torah metropolis, went to public school, and was a Pirates fan. He began learning in a yeshiva at the age of 18 and rose to the pinnacle of achievement. If he could, so can we.
If you asked anyone who knew Rav Scheiner and fell under his spell to describe him in one word, they would say that he was a malach.
The Chazon Ish is quoted to have said that the children of the Brisker Rov were malochim, angels. What did he mean? He meant that they were angelic in how they led their lives. Angelic in how they punctiliously observed mitzvos. Angelic in how they dealt with people. Angelic in how they treated their talmidim. Angelic in how they transmitted Torah to the next generation. They were like angels in how they portrayed what it meant to be holy, separated from the triteness and follies of the world. They were as if from a different planet, living their lives for Hashem. They knew how to live and shared their secrets with us. Those angels changed the world of Torah, propagating and promulgating Toras Brisk.
They touched us all, raised our lives, and showed us how to live. And now they are gone, but their Torah and mitzvos and avodas Hashem live on for eternity, brightening our world and enhancing our lives until the coming of Moshiach. May it be very soon. Bechol yom sheyavo.