Compare the story of Rav Chaim with this.
The Rav and the Prime Minister: Memories of Brisk from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s "Listening to God"
Some years later, when I was teaching at Yeshiva University, I would generally request a meeting with the Rav on Thursday afternoons to ask my “questions of the week.” He would usually give me from two minutes to an exceedingly rare, two hours, depending upon the pressures of his day. During one particular meeting, while the Rav was in the midst of showing me a passage from the Guide for the Perplexed, a telephone call came announcing that Menachem Begin, newly elected prime minister of Israel, would be arriving shortly. The prime minister of Israel is generally considered to be the prime minister of world Jewry, and this first traditional prime minister announced that during his first official visit to the United States, he wished an audience with the three religious Jewish leaders of the generation: the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Soloveitchik. Now that the revered head of state was about to enter the Rav’s New York apartment, I knew that good manners dictated that I excuse myself; my curiosity, however, got the better of my gentility, and I opted to remain until I was specifically asked to leave.
When Menachem Begin walked through the door, the Rav quickly jumped up to meet him. As they embraced, the Rav seemed especially moved, with what appeared to me to be tears welling up in his eyes. These two Jewish world leaders, the foremost statesmen in the political arena and the foremost rabbi in the religio-philosophical realm, both shared a common “Brisker” (Brest-Litovsk, Lithuania) connection.
Rav Joseph Dov’s illustrious grandfather, Rav Chayyim Soloveitchik (who pioneered a new conceptual methodology for the study of Talmud), was the rabbi of the main synagogue in Brisk and therefore of the entire city; indeed, he was known worldwide as the “Brisker Rav.” Menachem Begin’s father, Binyamin Begin – an avid Zionist, a devotee of the Revisionist Movement’s founder, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and in his own right a riveting orator – was the gabbai (lay leader) of that same synagogue in Brisk. And just to add some spices to the cholent, one of the three judges (dayanim) of that synagogue community was Rav Moshe Chazan, the father of Yaakov Chazan, founder and leader of Mapam and the initiator of the secular Shomer HaTza’ir kibbutzim in Israel – and the midwife who “birthed” all of the babies was the grandmother of Ariel Sharon. Menachem Begin had been born and raised in Brisk, and Rav J.B. Soloveitchik had spent significant Sabbaths there with his grandfather, including that of his bar mitzvah.
After their initial embrace of greeting, both men stood looking at each other, respectfully, admiringly, nostalgically. The Rav seemed to burst out, “Mr. Prime Minister, you are so short, and your father was so tall.” Menachem Begin responded, “Kavod HaRav, I will say two things. Firstly, you remember how my father looked when you were a small child, and all adults seem taller than they actually are, to children. But the real point is that my father was always a much taller and greater man than I.”
And there they sat at the table and began to reminisce together, the one entering into the words of the other and finishing the other’s thoughts and sentences. Clearly they felt transported to their childhood in Brisk, as their Yiddish words and gesticulations evoked that world. A world in which either the rabbi or the gabbai held the keys to the synagogue, and Binyamin Begin had gladly given up his keys to the illustrious Reb Chayyim when the latter accepted the rabbinical position. A place where a bar mitzvah who was preparing to spend his biblical portion in Brisk, couldn’t sleep a week beforehand because his revered grandfather insisted that every cantillation had to be exactly accurate or the entire verse would have to be repeated; an ideological climate in which Zionist leaders were either revered as forerunners of the Messiah, or reviled as rebels against God’s rule over the cosmos.
And then they both recounted an incident together, the one dispute they remembered that had taken place between the gabbai and the rabbi, between Binyamin Begin and Rav Chayyim Soloveitchik. Theodore Herzl, the legendary father of modern Zionism, died, and Binyamin Begin planned to eulogize him in the main synagogue of Brisk. Reb Chayyim was an anti-Zionist who certainly did not believe it proper to eulogize a non-observant Jew who probably ate on Yom Kippur, in an Orthodox synagogue. Since it was the rabbi who had the keys, without any kind of discussion or debate, Reb Chayyim locked the synagogue door on the morning of the scheduled eulogy. Binyamin Begin, a powerful person in his own right, broke the lock, opened the synagogue doors wide, and gave his eulogy. He then purchased new keys and a lock, and left them on the doorstep of Reb Chayyim’s home with a letter of apology and a promise that he would never do such a thing again.
Both men agreed to the facts of this. But the Rav added a fascinating postscript. He had heard of this incident from his father, Rav Moshe, who was a rabbi of a smaller town a considerable distance from Brisk. Rav Moshe asked his father, Reb Chayyim, how he had reacted to the gabbai’s defiance. Reb Chayyim, who was generally a lion in defense of what he considered proper Torah values, told his son that he decided not to react, that he inquired how many people had attended the eulogy, and found out that the shul was filled to the rafters with a large overflow outside, many more congregants than for Ne’ila on Yom Kippur. Reb Chayyim explained that “a rav muz vissen ven tzu reden, un a rav muz vissen ven tzu shreigen, a rabbi must know when to speak out, and a rabbi must know when to remain silent.”
“Mr. Prime Minister, you apparently learned to be a principled Zionist from your father,” said Rav Soloveitchik. “Kavod HaRav, you apparently learned to be a sage religious leader from your grandfather,” said Menachem Begin.
At that point, the Rav suddenly took notice of my presence, made a very quick introduction, and gestured in a way that told me that my appointment had long since ended. I left the apartment happily, not at all guilty that I had overstayed my welcome. After all, this too was Torah, and I was glad that I had been in the right place to have learned it.