Trembling Before Rashi
By Shaul Gold
One of the defining moments in the development of my hashkafas hachaim (outlook on life) occurred during a Shiur Klali (weekly lecture) I attended as a talmid in Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim.
The Rosh Yeshiva, R’ Nochum Partzovitz, ZT”L, was a son-in-law of Rav Chaim Schmuelevitz, ZT”L, and one of the preeminent Maggidei Shiur that emerged after the War. He was one of the famed Mirrer talmidim from Shanghai and a talmid of R’ Boruch Ber Levovitz (Rosh Yeshivah in Kamenitz and a Talmid Muvhak of R’ Chaim Soloveitchik). R’ Nochum’s awe and reverence of R’ Boruch Ber and R’ Chaim Brisker was well known.
R’ Nochum suffered from arterial sclerosis and, when I arrived at the Yeshivah, was already confined to a wheelchair. He gave a daily shiur, a chaburah on Thursday nights, and a preview of the Shiur Klali on Motza’i Shabbos. The preview shiur was unique in that, while it was ostensibly a small gathering in his apartment, it was, in fact, attended by hundreds of talmidim from other Yeshivos that gathered in the hallway and stairway to hear the shiur. The shiur was a great strain for R’ Nochum physically, but was an exciting analysis of the sugya and a great preparation for the Sunday Shiur Klali.
The first few Shiurei Klali I heard from R’ Nochum were difficult for me. I hadn’t sufficiently prepared for the shiur, and, without adequate preparation, it was difficult to appreciate the full depth of the shiur. I had to learn a different level of preparation than I was accustomed to previously in order to enjoy and get the most out of the shiur.
Now to the defining moment: One Shiur Klali was based on a tosfos in Kesubos. Tosfos responded to a question with an answer that both R’ Chaim and R’ Boruch Ber found problematic. Both endeavored to clarify Tosfos’ response, each in his own way. R’ Nochum reviewed both pshatim and argued that, while both pshatim were brilliant, and both answered Tosfos’ question, neither explained Tosfos’ response, which is what they purported to accomplish. He then proceeded to explain Tosfos’ response with a different approach.
All of this is pretty standard in a Shiur Klali. What was out of the ordinary, what was a life-changing moment to me, was ‘how’ R’ Nochum argued on R’ Chaim and R’ Boruch Ber. An English rendition cannot possibly do this justice but I will try.
R’ Nochum began to stutter. He began to shake visibly. He repeated over and over how great R’ Chaim was and how his rebbe, R’ Boruch Ber towered over anyone he knew intellectually. He praised the explanations and commented on the power and depth of their reasoning. He must have uttered “the Rebbe”, about R’ Boruch Ber, a dozen or more times in a halting and trembling voice before finally in a spurt of shame and with eyes averted he said; “ubber, ubber, ebber, … dos iz nit pshat in Tosfos’ teretz”, “but, but, but, … that is not pshat in Tosfos’ response.”
I was glued to R’ Nochum at that time and a shiver ran down my spine. When R’ Nochum learned a pshat of R’ Boruch Ber’s he saw d’mus deyukno (his appearance) before him. His reverence for R’ Boruch Ber and for R’ Chaim was an essential part of his being, and for him to argue on them, for him to point out a perceived flaw in their Torah, he had to so with utter hachno’oh (subservience) and humility.
It was a life changing moment for me. I began to understand R’ Nochum and many of the other great Chachomim that I had encountered in a new light and I had to change the way I was a mekabel (recipient).
I was recently privy to a conversation regarding the efficacy of teaching “fantastical” Rashis and midrashot to young students. An example given referred to the age of Rivka when she met and married Yitzchok and the discussion included whether such material can or should be taken literally and/or whether other commentaries that gave more “rational” explanations, should supplant those Rashis and Midrashim.
My thoughts went back to R’ Nochum and to the many other great sages that stood in awe and reverence of their predecessors – to those who viewed the early Achronim and the Rishonim as towering giants that far surpassed them quantitatively, qualitatively and spirtitually. I thought about Rashi and how carefully each of his words was weighed, about the amount of times each comment was reviewed and rewritten before it was presented to the public, and about Rashi’s acclaim as the father of pshat. And then I thought about the cavalier manner that this holy genius’s work was being reviewed and how much more “savvy” our contemporaries are.
I thought about R’ Nochum and how he stuttered and I thought about Rashi. I thought about how our teachers and sages trembled when discussing a difficult Rashi and the joy they had when they reached an understanding of the deeper meaning behind Rashi’s words. And then I thought of those that know better than Rashi.
Like my Rabbeim, I tremble before Rashi. But I shudder at the thought of those that wish to deconstruct him.
Rabbi Shaul Gold serves as a Rabbinic Coordinator for the Orthodox Union. He was previously the mara d’asra of the Young Israel of Ave. U, has been an educator for many years.