A Tribute to Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, shlit”a
Guest post by Ari Lamm
Ari Lamm is the William Fischman Rabbinic Intern at the Jewish Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and a 3rd year semicha student at RIETS. A former US-UK Fulbright Scholar with an M.A. in Jewish History and Eastern Christianity from University College London, Ari is also a member of the Tikvah Fund’s postgraduate fellowship. This letter will appear in this week’s Jewish Center Bulletin
I received this week with bittersweet emotion the news of your retirement from Yeshiva University. Years and years will be required to reflect appropriately upon your storied career, and I admit that I am in no position to initiate this endeavor. As your grandchild – and not even the first – I arrived, at best, during the seventh inning stretch of your career (a reference that I’ll have to explain to you some time), far too late to appreciate its full scope and impact. But I have cared for you as my zeide as far back as I can remember, so please allow me two public remarks on that component of your life’s work.
“For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in” – Psalm 27:10
Harry Chapin popularized the sentiment, but even before him King David recognized the frequent reality that first among the casualties of a human being’s consummate devotion to a singular cause are his children. Indeed, it is a commonplace that the problem more acutely affects the families of public figures.
Your children never felt this way. My father often reminisces about wonderful Shabbatot spent around the family table, and consciously worked to recreate around his own Shabbat table the warmth and wisdom he imbibed as a youngster.
And even with the steady arrival of grandchildren, representing the exponential growth of your filial commitments, your dedication to providing a loving family environment grew to match. I know I speak for all of your grandchildren when I say that we never felt that we had loaned you to the world of ‘avodat ha-kodesh – begrudging, if still understanding, the important work the Almighty called upon you to do. Instead, we felt as equal partners with that world – for every sefer you authored and every shi’ur kelali you delivered, there were dozens of se’udot Shabbat at which we gleefully pulled your beard and played Scrabble with you. This was a prototypical case of zeh neheneh, ve-zeh lo chaser (“this one benefited, and the other suffered no loss”).
“‘My spirit that is upon you, and My words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your children, or out of the mouth of your grandchildren,’ says the Lord” – Isaiah 59:21
Ever since I was an adolescent I’ve fiercely admired your career and been heavily invested in your contributions to the world of Jewish thought. As I matured, and grew more sensitive to the vastness of the world of Torah, I explored more carefully your contributions to halachah and lomdus. I was hardly alone in this, and indeed have certainly been surpassed by many of my more learned colleagues.
In fact, I mention this not to commend my own, relatively unremarkable attraction to your oeuvre, but rather to note the following. The reason I first learned to care about what you have done as President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva University – and this has remained the primary reason, even as others have accreted over the years – was not because I felt compelled to do so by the intellectual and spiritual weight of your office…but because I had a dear grandfather – with a smile in his heart and a twinkle in his eye – who taught me, through love, laughter and limmud Torah, the importance of a life lived by the “words that I have put in your mouth.”
Mazal tov, Zeide.
I’m happy that you never perceived a conflict between your grandfather’s public duties and private devotions, but this is a subject I’ve thought about at times: If one is “saving the world,” spending less time with one’s family seems to be justified. But what are the limits? How much time away is too much?
And although I don’t defend what I’m about to say, how does one philosophically defend spending any time with one’s family (or a dying a parent who needs constant attention) if one is “saving the world”?
The same way one defends having anything material above basic necessities when there are people who are starving or homeless. That is, we’re humans and not angels. And that’s what we’re supposed to be.
And no one is really indispensable, except maybe George Washington. 🙂
“Nachum on July 7, 2013 at 4:00 am
And no one is really indispensable, except maybe George Washington. :-”
Re George Washington
see ” In George Washington’s Expense Account — the best-selling expense account in history — Kitman shows how Washington brilliantly turned his noble gesture of refusing payment for his services as commander in chief of the Continental Army into an opportunity to indulge his insatiable lust for fine food and drink, extravagant clothing, and lavish accommodations. In a close analysis of the document that financed our Revolution, Kitman uncovers more scandals than you can shake a Nixon Cabinet member at –” I read the book decades ago.