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Remembering Rabbi Norman Lamm

June 1, 2020 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

A grief-stricken testimonial by a lifelong admirer, devotee and friend.

This is not meant to be a eulogy. The death of a giant, be it a monarch or master Jewish scholar and leader, demands a full and fitting recounting of all that defines his greatness.

That will surely come to pass in the weeks ahead, as we try to come to grips with the grief of the passing of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, who died this week at the age of 92. There will be many others who will provide the details of a life filled with so many achievements that it is almost impossible to believe they represent the legacy of one human being.

Congregational rabbi, Talmudic scholar, universally respected theologian, dazzling orator, brilliant author of major Judaic works that continue to influence hundreds of thousands and revitalize Orthodox Judaism, capped by his tenure as President and then Chancellor of Yeshiva University – these are but the broad outlines of a career that enabled the Jewish people to not only survive after the Holocaust but to enter a golden age of spiritual renewal, creativity and self-respect.

Others will write the eulogies which will require volumes. Let this simply stand as grief-stricken testimonial by a lifelong admirer, devotee and – if I dare make claim to the most cherished of all descriptives – friend.

Rabbi Lamm was older than me. While I was still a student at Yeshiva University preparing for rabbinic ordination in the class of Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rabbi Lamm had already gone on to make a name for himself as spiritual leader of the Orthodox synagogue in Springfield Massachusetts, followed by his election to head the Jewish center in New York City, one of the most prestigious Orthodox synagogues in the country. Yet as I sat together with my classmates avidly absorbing every word of the Rav I would note on most days the presence of Rabbi Lamm as well, voluntarily auditing words of Torah from a Rabbinic giant of our generation in spite of his harried schedule.

Only a scholar who feels the need always to continue to grow is a true talmid chacham – the Hebrew descriptive for a truly learned person which means “a student of wisdom.”

But it was some years later that I learned a different measure of Rabbi Lamm’s greatness that to my mind is even more important.

During the summer months I found myself privileged to serve as camp Rabbi and Educational Director at Camp Morasha. Rabbi Lamm had previously served in that position and continued to spend a goodly measure of time there as scholar-in-residence. We shared a camp-style bungalow – a bedroom on either side of a jointly shared kitchen in the middle. It took me a while to discover why, although Rabbi Lamm was one of those coffee addicted people who could barely function without his “cup of Joe”, he would forgo his wake-up medication on the days he needed to get up particularly early to travel to the city. When I realized this and questioned him he explained what to him was obvious: of course if there was the slightest chance his coffee ritual might wake me he wouldn’t think of disturbing me for his personal need.

That is the kind of “menshlichkeit” one rarely sees, especially from prominent personages who might well assume personal privilege.

But the incident that comes most to mind when I consider the greatness of his character is something that took place at a particularly historic moment in Rabbi Lamm’s life. It was shortly after he had been informed by phone, while at Camp Morasha, that he had been selected to follow Rabbi Belkin as President of Yeshiva University. He was to go in to New York to finalize his acceptance. His plan, he shared with me, was to first travel to the cemetery where his predecessor was interred, to pray and to express his hope that he prove worthy of following in Rabbi Belkin’s footsteps.

You can just imagine the excitement of everyone as campers and friends recognized the significance of this moment of transition of leadership of Yeshiva University. We all were thrilled beyond words and hastened to offer words of congratulation and mazel tov to Rabbi Lamm before his departure. My son, Ari, five years old at the time, pushed to the center of the crowd to also have a word with him. “When you are in New York, could you please bring me back a toy?” he pleaded.

Norman Lamm, center, the longtime leader of Yeshiva University, with Yitzhak Shamir, left, the Israeli foreign minister, and Secretary of State George Shultz in 1984.

Rabbi Lamm went to the cemetery. He met with the Board of Directors of Yeshiva University. He finalized plans for his assumption of the presidency. And yes, when he returned to camp, he didn’t forget to bring with him a beautiful toy truck for Ari!

Please do not wonder why my memory of an unforgettable Jewish leader and scholar highlights a seemingly insignificant gift to a little boy and a cup of coffee deferred.

It is in line with a rabbinic explanation for the reason that the book of Ruth is read on the holiday of Shavuot – the festival which commemorates the giving of the Torah and the Yom Tov forevermore associated with Rabbi Lamm’s departure from this earth.

Why, asked the rabbis, was this scroll given the honor of being read in every congregation around the world on Shavuot? It is to teach us how great is the mitzvah of chessed – of acts of kindness, the mitzvah which represents the very essence and message of the entire Torah. (Midrash Ruth Raba 2:15).

Rabbi Lamm will be remembered for many things. He lived Torah, he taught Torah – but most of all, to my mind, he epitomized the human representative of God as a master of chessed. May his memory serve as a source of inspiration to all of us.

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