Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik (hereafter R.Y.B.S.) was the great grandson of Rabbi Chaim Volozhin (foremost disciple of the Vilna Gaon and founder of Yeshivat Volozhin) and the great grandfather of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik (1903-1993). Living during a period of great turbulence and transition, he represented the highest level of scholarship, absolute loyalty to tradition and extraordinary sensitivity for the plight of the poor and unfortunate.
R.Y.B.S. was possessed of one of the great minds of his time, and in 1854 was invited to become co-Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin together with the Netziv (R.N.T.Y. Berlin). However, it became apparent that the two giants were temperamentally incompatible and after serving in the Yeshiva for ten years the Bais HaLevi felt it necessary to leave.
In 1865 he became Rabbi of Slutzk. One of his first acts after arriving in his new position was to visit the chedarim, and, when observing the impoverished state of many children, arranged for lunches to be served which were paid for by the community. His son, R. Chaim Soloveitchik, renowned for his creative genius, but who was also known for his extraordinary acts of kindness, once compared himself to his father, stating that while he himself responded to peoples’ needs, his father made sure to discover on his own what their needs were.
While in Slutzk, R.Y.B.S. was deeply involved in communal affairs and also taught Torah to some of the great minds of the generation (e.g. R. Yosef Rosen the Rogotchover, R. Zalman Sender Shapiro). He was a fierce opponent of the Maskilim and it was because of the undue influence of a well-known Maskil that he left Slutzk in 1874 and moved to Warsaw where he lived in great poverty. When Rabbi Y.L. Diskind left for Eretz Yisrael in 1878, Rabbi Soloveitchik was offered the rabbinate of Brisk. He remained there until his death, when his son R. Chaim succeeded him.
It was said of the Bais HaLevi that his fear of sin was comparable to an ordinary person’s fear when his life is in danger. His personal life was full of tragedy, but this did not break his powerful spirit and sense of justice. His works are characterized by their consistent brilliance and originality. In parshat Bo he posits the fascinating thesis that the mitzvot do not flow from their seeming reason, but rather the reasons arise because the mitzva existed in the Torah which preceded the world.
In his youth he lived in Brod for a time where R. Shlomo Kluger was rabbi and the latter enjoyed discussing Torah with the young scholar. When R.Y.B. was leaving R. Shlomo said to him, “you have always resolved my difficulties (kushiot) but I have one difficulty you cannot resolve: how difficult for me is your parting.”
In 1892 the government insisted that the Volozhin Yeshiva should extensively revise its curriculum to include a substantial amount of secular studies, much of which must be studied in the morning hours. The agonizing question arose whether to comply and totally transform the character of the Yeshiva or permit the Yeshiva to close. Some of the greatest leaders were called into session. Some of the assembled were inclined to agree to the changes. Whereupon with tears in his eyes the Bais HaLevi spoke up expressing his sharp disagreement: “We are dutybound to teach Torah and bequeath our heritage to the next generation in the way of our forefathers, not by new, unacceptable means. We cannot assume responsibility for such changes. Let He who gave the Torah do His!”