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No Barriers In Brisk

Aryeh Ehrlich

Rav Meir Soloveitchik, the youngest son of the Brisker Rav, is not a man known for displays of emotion, but when he approached the funeral bier to recite Kaddish over his dear friend Rav Aharon Mordechai Zilberstrom, his grief was palpable. What forged this intimate bond between the scion of Brisk andJerusalem’s leading light of Lubavitch? In a rare conversation, Rav Meir reveals a small part of the friendship shared with the Lubavitcher genius and revisits the town ofBriskwhere it all started.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

briskMidnight has long since passed, and most residents of theHolyCitywere long ensconced under their blankets, insulated from the cold and rain. Yet in two neighboring apartments, the lights are on and it could have been the middle of the day.

On the upper story of Rechov Chazanovich 3, the noise of the rustling treetops filters through the enclosed porch into the small living room, drowned out by the sound of Torah study, which continues throughout the night. An ancient heater allows the genius from Brisk to continue his Torah study unhindered by the frigidJerusalemnight.

In the center of the room, behind a volume of Rambam, a worn Gemara, a steaming cup of tea and a sugar cube, sits Rav Meir Soloveitchik, rosh yeshivah of Brisk and the youngest son of the Brisker Rav, Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik ztz”l. (Other Brisker yeshivos in Jerusalem are headed by the Brisker Rav’s son Rav Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik and grandson Rav Avraham Yehoshua Soloveitchik.)

For Rav Meir, these are the good hours, the hours of clarity. When the rest of the world is silent, when no one disturbs him, the sound of Torah study fills the room and new links are added to the golden chain of Brisk. One brilliant idea is piled on top of another, and the shiur that he will deliver the next day to his students takes shape. This small room is filled with the spirit of Brisk — its exacting dedication to halachah, its care for the tiniest details, and the sparkle of its Torah.

Across the street in the apartment on the second floor, the lights are also still on. In this modest home, whose walls are graced by pictures of the previous Rebbes of Chabad, sits Rav Aharon Mordechai Zilberstrom, a brilliant Torah scholar and the educator of thousands, a talmid chacham whose spiritual stature is matched by few, as he completes his daily learning regimen. He too is occupied with his daily study of the Rambam. Earlier in the evening, he learned with his regular chavrusa, Rav Shimon Yakobovitch, the beloved grandson of Rav Aryeh Levin ztz”l. Now, before he retires for the night, he is reviewing the material once more, so that it will be ingrained in him as surely as a beautiful Brisker esrog is maintained in its wrapping of flax.

Something in the plan has gone wrong. The brilliant Lubavitcher scholar is disturbed by a difficulty. A question penetrates his consciousness: What did the Rambam mean when he wrote these words? One volume of Gemara emerges from the small bookshelf, followed by another. The words of Tosafos will shed light on the Rambam he’s now studying; the two together will combine to yield a new approach to a related sugya. The chiddush develops in an unexpected direction. The clock keeps ticking, midnight is long gone, while an incredible approach has taken shape in Rav Aharon Mordechai’s mind. He is overwhelmed with joy, but at this late hour, who could he share his chiddush with?

Rabbi Aharon Mordechai Zilberstrom rarely displays emotions. He is a child of the Brisker aristocracy who filled his soul from the wellsprings of Chabad as an adult; in Brisk, emotions had no power over the head, and in Chabad, they saw to it that the mind always controlled the heart. Like the pious men of earlier generations, Rav Aharon Mordechai too has made sure that his intellect dominated his emotions. No one has ever seen him give vent to an outburst. He never shows either excessive joy or excessive sorrow; his actions are calculated, and his words are spoken softly, almost in a whisper.

This time, it is different. He actually feels like dancing. And he feels a powerful desire to share his exuberance with someone, to present the sugya to a friend who would listen. His feet, as if on their own, carry him outside to the rainy, cold street. In the home of his childhood friend, the beloved son of the Brisker Rav, lights still blaze in the window.

“Reb Aharon Mordechai, what brings my friend to my home?” Rav Soloveitchik exclaims, greeting the Lubavitcher scholar who stands at the door.

“I had a chiddush, and I wanted to share it,” Reb Aharon Mordechai replies.

Hours go by, and the pile of seforim continued to grow. By the time the two childhood friends take their leave of each other, the sun has already come up.


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