The Day that the Sun Set at Noon¹: Mourning Two Torah Greats

02 Dec 2020

Sunday, 21 MarCheshvan 5781, November 8, 2020, was a profoundly sad day for Orthodox Jewry worldwide, as it buried two great rabbinic leaders, Rabbi Dovid Feinstein and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Both were prominent and integral leaders within Orthodoxy, Rabbi Feinstein a preeminent Posek and Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Sacks an intellectual giant and master communicator and teacher of Torah.

While these two great rabbis may have been strangers in life, in their passing their names have become linked. Mourning their loss gives us the opportunity to appreciate and value the greatness that each of these men represented, and to recognize the magnitude of their loss to Klal Yisrael and the world.

Hagaon Rav Dovid Feinstein was the son of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the preeminent American Halachic authority whose volumes of responsa remain a critical resource for all students of Halacha and its application to modern life. Upon his passing in 1986, his relatively unknown son Dovid formally succeeded him as Rosh Yeshiva of Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and informally stepped into his role as an address for the most complex of Halachic questions. Rav Dovid was allergic to the trappings of honor, loyal to the modest community of the Lower East Side, and deeply committed to being quietly available to all who sought his counsel, friendship, or material support. Though he served as a private resource and final authority for the world’s most prominent rabbis, he remained a man of few words, rarely speaking publicly outside of his yeshiva. He was a Gadol b’Torah who shared his vast knowledge with those who sought him out.

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was an intellectual giant whose personal charisma and formidable gifts of communication were employed to advance the teaching of Torah and Jewish values within the Jewish community and beyond it. His electrifying speeches were invariably insightful, motivating, engaging, and profoundly impressive, gaining honor for the Torah amongst Jews and the world at large. His 33 books included Torah commentary that was eagerly consumed and shared each Shabbos by many thousands, as well as volumes written for a broader public addressing society’s most pressing challenges. The values he taught were strong and clear, his personal commitments to family, to the value of kindness, and to strengthening the connection of all Jews to Judaism were inspiring, and his vision and ambition to improve the broader world were daringly breathtaking.

Two treasures of the Jewish people. Two leaders whose Torah influence visibly impacted the Orthodox community.

To appreciate their complementary roles in leading Klal Yisrael, let us consider two pairs of Biblical archetypes, Shem and Avraham, and Yaakov and Yosef.

The Yeshiva of Shem and the House of Avraham

Our tradition speaks of two ancient schools of monotheistic faith: the yeshiva of Shem and Ever, and the house of Avraham. The yeshiva of Shem was visited and supported by the patriarchs, as Avraham gave

his tithes to support Shem and his work², and both Yitzchak³ and Yaakov4 studied there. Simultaneously, Avraham built his own following that eventually included the many “souls that they had transformed in Charan,” who constituted the house of Avraham5.

What was the difference between these two schools of faith?

Rambam opens his Laws of Avodah Zara with a history of religion and the spread of idolatry, speaking of the consistent belief of people like Shem the son of Noach, and the discovered faith of Avraham that led him to smash the idols of his parents and contemporaries. Raavad6 questions how it came to be that Shem himself did not smash those idols. His own response is that Shem, with his pristine upbringing and lifelong commitment to monotheism, may simply not have been aware of the pagan practices of his contemporaries, as opposed to Avraham who was born and raised amongst idol worshippers. Rav Yosef Karo in Kessef Mishneh7 offers an alternative approach, suggesting that Shem did not contemplate smashing the idols as he only offered his teachings to those who sought them, whereas Avraham proactively sought to change the world, reaching out even to those who did not seek his lessons.

Thus, we have two paradigms of the teaching of our faith. One that remains private and pristine, building a quiet world of and for the believer. This model does not seek to engage the world beyond it and may not even have familiarity with that world. Instead, it maintains a haven for the faithful who wish to escape the world of the heathens. That was Shem, either unaware of or unconcerned with the competing belief systems that surrounded him, focused on maintaining the clear and vibrant tradition of faith within his own bastion that was open to those who sought refuge and growth within it, on its own terms. Rather than correct the paths of the wayward he would provide a framework for those who sought an extended, deep, and profound exploration of G-d’s word.

Avraham, on the other hand, had a vision to save the world. He identified the idols, made it his business to understand what others were thinking and believing and to dismantle the ideas that had no place in a world of truth. He went beyond those who sought shelter in his tent, inviting in others whose beliefs were not yet identical with his, necessarily engaging them on their own terms and bringing them around.

Avraham was a Nesi Elokim8, a G-dly prince, crowned as such by the world on account of his moral and spiritual greatness as he assertively played a critical role in changing the world around him. Midrash9 teaches that the impression he made was such that as a man of spiritual greatness – a Nesi Elokim – he was acknowledged as the truer giant in a community of physical titans, Chevron. Avraham stepped forward with complete confidence in what his faith had to offer mankind and without any sense of inferiority. We must note that the famous description in the episode of the spies10 spoke precisely of this; “We were in our eyes like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.” This was not simply a commentary on their self-esteem. It was the story of the good meeting the great, the spiritually outstanding encountering the physically exceptional. Only with confidence in what we bring to the table will we prevail. This was Avraham.

As Jews committed to being a “light unto the nations”, we rightfully identify with this mandate of changing the world. Yet, as we have seen, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov all valued the yeshiva of Shem. Evidently Avraham’s more expansive alternative did not render Shem’s yeshiva obsolete.

In a classic passage, the Talmud11 describes as heretics those who question the value of the Torah scholars who study but do not teach Torah, as in truth the world exists on their account. Their single-minded dedication to Torah study, building an inwardly focused spiritual world, provides an inestimable value to the broader world that may not even be aware of their existence. And remarkably, the Talmud makes this assertion just a few lines after discussing the transformative impact of those who actively teach others, drawing upon the example of Avraham.

There is critical value to both the yeshiva of Shem and the house of Avraham.

The Tent of Yaakov and the House of Yosef

Yaakov was known as a dweller of tents, understood by our Sages as referring to the yeshiva of Shem and Ever12. Unlike Eisav who was a man of this world, Yaakov was a man of the next13, preferring to live quietly in the sanctuary of study created and symbolized by Shem rather than pursuing worldly conquest. In fact, it can be said that he was not only disinterested in the earthy realms occupied by Eisav; he did not either aspire to the spiritual leadership achieved by Avraham.

But Yaakov’s mother Rivkah calls him out of the tent.

As her husband was preparing to grant Eisav the earthly blessings of agricultural prosperity and domination of nations, Rivkah instructed Yaakov to stand in and claim them for himself. Rivkah understood that these blessings were not natural to Yaakov, yet the alternative – that these blessings would go to Eisav – was intolerable. And here we can contemplate two levels of concern.

First, it is inevitable that when the world around us degenerates and becomes increasingly hostile to faith, it becomes progressively more difficult to maintain an island of holiness. Allowing Eisav to dominate the material could ultimately spell the demise of the spiritual.

But second, we need to aspire to more than spiritual survival and not satisfy ourselves with preserving the existing sacred tent, but rather to go forth and “expand the space of (y)our tent,”14 seeking to make the world as a whole more G-dly.

Whether the goal was more modest or more broad, Rivkah urged Yaakov to move beyond his current space and to challenge Eisav for the domination of the world.

Yaakov listened to his mother but did not seem to embrace her vision.

Yaakov stood in for those blessings, but he did not truly claim them. Time after time he ran from those who challenged him spiritually – be it Eisav, Lavan, or Shechem – rather than standing up to them. At times he denied any real claim to the blessings he had “stolen”,15 and – unlike his father and grandfather – at no time in his life do we find him reaching out to teach others about G-d, choosing instead to focus inward on his family.16

Those blessings were left for his son Yosef to claim.17 Yosef had started life as Yaakov’s prized pupil, studying with him within that sacred tent.18 But ultimately Yosef would leave the tent for the palace, conquering the world as a man filled with the G-dly spirit,19 assertively occupying the leadership of Egypt both materially and morally.20

Yet, from his palace throne Yosef advocates for the tent of Yaakov, guiding his father and brothers about how to approach Pharaoh for a haven for their family to establish themselves according to their values, incompatible as they were with those of the Egyptians.21 Yosef of the capital advocated for Yaakov and Yehuda of the Goshen ghetto. He recalled his precious early days studying in that tent with his father and sought to support its reestablishment in the exile.

Yosef’s vision was far wider than that tent. He was there to rule the world, to use his position of material power to positively reshape the morality of the world’s greatest superpower. He was what Rivkah had envisioned when she encouraged Yaakov to stand in for Eisav for those blessings. He would not dodge the encounter with the world but embrace it, thus transforming the world under the kingdom of G-d. But that same visionary and courageous Yosef understood that the power that would ultimately sustain the world would lie with the still small voice of Torah and spirituality of the tent community, as removed as it was from the public square he so dominated.

Beloved and Pleasant in Life

Our generation was blessed with our own Shem and Avraham, Yaakov and Yosef; with one leader whose Torah sustained the world from within its sacred tent, and another who ventured forth to transform the world and the worldly by the light of the Torah.

Hagaon Rav Dovid Feinstein was a towering and classic Gadol b’Torah who followed the model of his illustrious father and of other Torah greats that preceded him. His passing leaves a huge void as the Torah that he studied and taught, the Halachic rulings that he shared, and the kindness that he lived, were of immeasurable value and – we firmly believe – sustained the world. In a rapidly changing world, his brand of clear and simple Halachic guidance is so needed and will be sorely missed. In an increasingly strident and showy world, we will yearn for the living example of his humility, loyalty, and simple kindness.

He occupied the tents of Shem and of Yaakov.

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was a historic figure, unique to our time. He had no model to follow. Who in memory has elevated the honor of Torah to comparable heights before the eyes of the world? Who in our experience has identified the idols and ills of our host society so clearly so as to compellingly and shatteringly address them with a resonance that could inspire and guide us even as it sought to cure the world as a whole? Yes, our unique stage in history has made it possible for a Jew to play that role. But only one Jew, one man, stepped into that role and responsibility. He spoke to us and he spoke for us, uplifting our community and the world around it with his Torah, conveyed with his unparalleled brilliance and genuineness.

His was the mission of Avraham and of Yosef, reaching out to shine the light of Torah and faith into every corner.

May the memories of Rav Dovid and of Rabbi Jonathan be for a blessing, and may they bind our community together in recognition of the Torah’s potential to address and cure the broader world, and in appreciation of the still small voices of those who sustain our world by their unremitting quest to know G-d through His Torah.

1 Moed Katan 25b
2 Bereishit 14:20, Rashi
3 Bereishit Rabba 56:11
4 Rashi to Bereishit 25:27 and 28:9
5 Rashi to Bereishis 12:5, Rambam Hilchot Avoda Zara 1:3
6 Hilchot Avoda Zara 1:3
7 Ad loc.
8 Bereishit 23:6
9 See Rashi to Yehoshua 14:15
10 Bamidbar 13:33 2 Bereishit 14:20, Rashi 3 Bereishit Rabba 56:
11 Sanhedrin 99b
12 Rashi to Bereishit 25:27
13 Yalkut Shimoni 110
14 Yeshayahu 54:2
15 Rashi to Bereishit 32:5
16 Ramban to Bereishit 12:8
17 Bereishit 49:26
18 Rashi to Bereishit 37:3
19 Bereishit 39:3, 41:38
20 Rashi to Bereishit 41:55
21 Bereishit 46:34

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.