Rav Aharon Moshe Schechter Zt”l
August 31, 2023
With Majesty and Meticulousness
A Tribute to Rav Aharon Moshe Schechter Zt”l, Rosh Yeshivas Rabbi Chaim Berlin
Writing a tribute for a gadol b’Yisrael is always a challenge. Trying to grasp his greatness, his unique style of avodas Hashem and leadership, and the way in which he inspired others and then attempting to capture all that in words is no easy feat.
But this was something else. Chaim Berlin is a close-knit kehillah with a distinct mehalech; the nuances of expressions used there are unfamiliar to others.
But that isn’t all. Talmidim tend to want to share about their luminary after his petirah to give the world a taste of what they lost. But not with Rav Aharon Schechter. Talmid after close talmid demurred, referring me one to another as I tried to glean some details of his life.
Their silence speaks volumes.
It demonstrates a profound awe of their rosh yeshivah, even after his petirah. It characterizes the synthesis of regal nobility and refined tznius that Chaim Berlin stands for and testifies to the way the Rosh Yeshivah showed that the two are not contradictory.
And when they did open up to me, I was awarded a glimpse of a gadol with a unique blend. I heard of a man who led the yeshivah and the accompanying kehillah of alumni and ba’alei batim with grit, love, and wisdom. He was a general who lifted up his flock while maintaining his role as a soldier—a soldier of Hashem, and a soldier of his great rebbi, Rav Yitzchak Hutner zt”l.
The ultimate talmid
The kesher between rebbi and talmid was one of mutual love and respect and is evident in the haskamah that Rav Yitzchak Hutner, former rosh yeshivah of Chaim Berlin, wrote for R’ Aharon’s sefer Avodas Aharon, written when the latter was in his high 20s.
I saw in you since your youth that your heart is the heart of a lion in all areas of Torah—hilchos de’os, chovos halevavos, and mitzvos ha’eivarim. Now that I have merited seeing you as a gaon in Torah and da’as, I feel the time has come for the packet of fragrances within you to be released to the world… The name of the sefer is indeed very appropriate, as it signifies the way you blend the ohr haTorah with the ohr of avodah…
With a devotion that evokes that of Yehoshua bin Nun, R’ Aharon would not make a move without Rav Hutner. When Rav Hutner left for Eretz Yisrael in 1975, he made it clear that his prize talmid would become rosh yeshivah. Contemporaries of R’ Aharon were not surprised. While Rav Hutner had numberous outstanding talmidim, many who went on to serve in various leadership positions, R’ Aharon was the ultimate talmid of Rav Hutner. If Rav Hutner was looking for someone he could trust to carry on his legacy, he found it in Rav Aharon Schechter.
Even after leaving for Eretz Yisrael, Rav Hutner would return to yeshivah for Yamim Tovim. When he’d return, R’ Aharon would seamlessly revert to the role of talmid, drinking in his rebbi’s words with excitement and thirst.
After Rav Hutner’s petirah, in 1980, R’ Aharon only saw himself as a caretaker, the person charged with making sure Rav Hutner’s message lived on. Any guidance he gave was against the backdrop of what he thought Rav Hutner would have said.
In essence, he was always a talmid, even when he stood at the helm.
The fire of Torah
He would learn in the beis midrash with the enthusiasm of a bachur, completely losing himself in the delights of Torah. In his younger years, his shiurim would last four hours. He could often be seen sitting in one place for five or six hours, concentrating on the words of the Rishon before him.
And the depth he managed to reach was astounding. In a review of Avodas Aharon,printed in the Hapardes journal, he is extolled at length as a Torah giant of surreal proportions, with the writer exclaiming that such greatness in Torah is a true novelty for America to produce.
By nature, he was extremely weak, and he needed to push himself past his limits constantly. He once remarked that according to his actual strength, he should have stayed in bed the entire day. But he pushed himself and pushed himself to reach the highest of heights.
Nobility of conduct
Of the many ideals Rav Hutner instilled in his talmidim, perhaps the greatest is the importance of proper conduct and refined behavior. R’ Aharon embodied this ideal.
He once saw a bachur leaving the yeshivah building with his shirt untucked. He called him over and said with a smile, “I’m not sure if you consider yourself a chashuve bachur, but I do. And a chashuve bachur should not walk around with an untucked shirt.”
Eating while standing or even while in the car was out of the question for him. He saw himself as a Tzelem Elokim, and the behavior that that engendered was one of royalty. Even his speech was regal. Endowed with a rich tongue, he was particular about every word he uttered. In conversation, he would often pause, contemplating the exact word and expression to use. He could spend hours deliberating over the wording of a ma’amar or letter, writing, pondering, erasing, and rewriting.
Slang, gassen shprach, was not tolerated in his presence; referring to bachurim as “guys” would get a sharp rebuke.
The innate respect for others was part of his avodas Hashem. A talmid brought his son to the Rosh Yeshivah to put on tefillin for the first time. After davening, the Rosh Yeshivah, still adorned in his tefillin, walked the bar mitzvah bachur out of the beis medrash to his office. Inside, the Rosh Yeshivah spoke about the kedushah of tefillin and advised him not to speak sichas chulin, mundane talk, while wearing them.
Then he paused before adding, “You might be wondering why you saw me greeting people on the way out after davening. Greeting people is being a mentsch, and being a mentsch is not sichas chulin.”
His dealings with Rav Hutner were rich in humility and kavod for his rebbi. It is said that he would don his Shabbos hat before lifting the phone to call him. Likewise, talmidim of the yeshivah knew to wear their jacket while speaking to the Rosh Yeshivah. A person’s rebbi represents something greater than he, and the only way to appreciate it properly is by acting the part.
Elevating the ordinary
Everything about the Rosh Yeshivah’s conduct exuded hecherkeit.
Shabbos in yeshivah wasn’t ordinary; its kedushah was palpable. Yom Tov was infused with meaning.
There was once a question whether to sing by Hallel in yeshivah. R’ Aharon didn’t understand the need.
“The words sing for themselves!”
Such was his tefillah, his entire avodas Hashem. He was in a higher realm.
Simchas Torah and Purim in yeshivah were legendary. The dancing would go on for hours with the Rosh Yeshivah in the middle, his tall frame and long beard swaying majestically as his love for Hashem, for Torah, and for every Yid burst forth. It was a simchah born from profound depth, from true connection.
That was the way he loved every Yid as well. It wasn’t a simple love-all-Jews attitude; it was based on the appreciation of the shared role and identity given to all of Klal Yisrael at Har Sinai and the connection that comes through that.
Someone once asked the Rosh Yeshivah a question regarding a woman who was on the verge of marrying out of Judaism. Before he could finish the question, he saw the Rosh Yeshivah burst into tears and cry over someone he didn’t even know but nevertheless felt connected to.
A great soul understands the importance of the seemingly simple. Talmidim recall how R’ Aharon was able to revel in a pasuk of Chumash the same way he did in a sevarah of Rav Akiva Eiger.
A talmid who was getting married asked him about davening for others under the chuppah.
“You have to daven for yourself under the chuppah. You have so much to daven for!” was the reply.
Rabbi Eli Hoberman, a close confidant of the Rosh Yeshivah, was supposed to take the Rosh Yeshivah shopping. It was during bein hazmanim, so he called R’ Aharon and mentioned that now that the Rosh Yeshivah had spare time, it might be worthwhile to make the trip.
The Rosh Yeshivah called him to his office and sat him down. “There is no such a thing as spare time in a Yid’s life. Every moment is heilig; every moment has a purpose.”
When asking him a question, one knew to avoid the slightest whiff of triviality. He demanded that others think hecher, transcending the simple mindset we are often plagued with.
Someone once asked him why he chose one rebbi for the yeshivah over another one. R’ Aharon was appalled.
“Are we little children fighting over recess snack?”
Such a question reeked of kleinkeit, and R’ Aharon would not tolerate that.
Hecherkeit was not only a way of life for the Rosh Yeshivah, it was how he lifted up all those in his orbit. He saw into your neshamah and gave you a taste of the pleasures of being an eved Hashem.
When a formerly nonreligious owner and director of a summer camp became frum, he asked the Rosh Yeshivah what changes he should implement in the camp to inspire the hundreds of campers.
“Every Erev Shabbos, I want you to put on your finest suit and tie. Polish your shoes. And then walk around the camp wishing everyone gut Shabbos.”
The first week, the director made his rounds, and the campers were convinced it was color war breakout. A few weeks later, the campers were already anticipating his greeting and responded with a “Gut Shabbos” of their own. The change was not long in the coming. A minyan was formed for Kabbalas Shabbos and the meals looked different. Many of the boys went on to become serious bnei Torah.
All because the Rosh Yeshivah recognized the natural pull a Yiddishe neshamah has toward kedushah.
The fire and the warmth
The Rosh Yeshivah had high expectations of his talmidim, and he demanded that they not squander the opportunities for greatness that life presents. He didn’t look lightly upon misbehavior, acting in a manner not befitting a ben Torah, or even missing a ma’amar.
But true to his name, he portrayed both the middas hadin of Moshe Rabbeinu and the love of Aharon Hakohen. His rebuke was always followed by an exemplary show of love, a giant hug and a warm smile, demonstrating that his show of anger was never from his heart, but a result of his wanting to lift his talmidim up.
At the levayah, his son-in-law Rav Yitzchok Meir Senderowitz compared him to the malach that hits the grass to make sure that it grows. “It might be a potch, but it leads to growth.”
Someone once made up to collaborate with the Rosh Yeshivah on a project but then pulled out, leaving the Rosh Yeshivah in an uncomfortable position. The Rosh Yeshivah called him up and let him know that what he had done was unacceptable.
Trying to rectify the damage, the individual called the gabbai and asked if he would be able to come over to apologize. When the gabbai cautiously mentioned to R’ Aharon that this person wanted to visit, the Rosh Yeshivah smiled broadly.
“Sure. Why not?”
The love was evident when he dealt with people who were not yet religious. Rabbi Nate Segal, a close talmid of the Rosh Yeshivah and a kiruv rav, recalls the warmth the Rosh Yeshivah showed the members of his community.
A single mother whose former husband was antagonistic to Yiddishkeit was marrying off her son, and the Rosh Yeshivah was invited to attend the wedding. When he arrived, Rabbi Segal pointed the father out, warning the Rosh Yeshivah that he would probably try to provoke him.
R’ Aharon went over to him and asked if he could speak to him privately. The two went into a side room and exited after 20 minutes, all smiles.
“What did the Rosh Yeshivah tell him?” Rabbi Segal asked.
“It’s his son’s wedding, and he feels like an outsider, a stranger. I went through the entire night, explaining exactly what will be done and what the meaning of it is.”
Even his small interactions made a profound impact. People would recall years later how a few minutes with R’ Aharon changed their life forever. He spoke with such sincerity and love, such clarity and depth, that his words inevitably hit their mark.
The Shabbos seudos in the Rosh Yeshivah’s home were usually attended by many guests. One week, a Russian immigrant was there, and the Rosh Yeshivah began saying a pasuk that that guest did not understand. The Rosh Yeshivah spent the rest of the seudah patiently explaining the pasuk, until he was comfortable that the guest had grasped it fully.
After the seudah, one bachur with an abundance of chutzpah asked the Rosh Yeshivah why he had spent the entire seudah teaching one boy.
“I was teaching hima pasuk, but I was teaching everyone else what it means to love another Yid and how to teach him Torah,” said the Rosh Yeshivah.
No one was out of his jurisdiction. A seventh grader who had lost a parent was found to be a terrible influence on the others in his class. The menahal went to the Rosh Yeshivah to ask him how to proceed.
“We cannot have a bad influence in yeshivah.”
It seemed like an open-and-shut case, so the menahal rose to leave.
But the Rosh Yeshivah was not finished. “What are you going to do?”
“I’ll tell his mother that he cannot come back to yeshivah.”
“How can we do that to an almanah? Who will take care of the boy?” the Rosh Yeshivah demanded.
He didn’t let the menahel leave until he promised to get a yungerman who would learn with the boy every day in the beis medrash.
Clarity of mission
At one of the recent siyum haShas celebrations, another Rosh Yeshivah looked around and remarked how such a ma’amad should surely bring Mashiach.
“Perhaps,” R’ Aharon replied. “Uber of deveila, darf men lernen—But in the meantime, we have to learn.” Right now we have a responsibility to do what is incumbent on us, not to worry about how Mashiach will come.
It was the responsibility to do what’s right, to do what our Torah commands us to do, that drove the Rosh Yeshivah every day of his life. Our job is to act the way Hashem wants us to, in a way befitting the princely role we are here to fulfill.
We may longer have this prince of a man with us, but he left us all, talmidim and non-talmidim alike, with a holy mission: “Of deveila darf men lernen…”