Rav Shlomo Wolbe - In Memoriam (Ideas #66)

On Monday night of Chol haMoed, the Jewish people lost a truly unique leader. Thus, when a well-meaning friend commented that we have lost another gadol, I could not help but laugh Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt'l was not another gadol he was self-consciously different from most rabbis who are considered gedolim today.

Known to be the outstanding proponent of the mussar approach in our times, Rav Wolbe went far beyond the teachings of his own teachers, creatively opening up new worlds of understanding to the few who were really ready to listen and to reflect. In fact, he was a living reminder of that very need to listen and reflect. More than anything else, he taught us mindfulness at a time when it is so sorely lacking.

Rav Wolbe maintained that seeing truly great Jews is a fundamentally important religious experience. Indeed, speaking with him only once showed me life lessons about speech and interpersonal relations that I would never have understood simply by reading a text. Before meeting Rav Wolbe, I knew the importance of listening to others, but didn't realize its full implications. I was also aware of the need to think before speaking, but didn't really understand what that entails. When I spoke with Rav Wolbe, there were very long pauses after I spoke and before he spoke. At first, I didn't understand what was happening. After a few minutes, however, I realized that he used these pauses to properly integrate what I had said and then to determine what he would reply. I cannot say how long these pauses actually were, but being unaccustomed to such a manner of discourse, they seemed to go on forever. It seems that he understood better than any of us the true importance of and relationship between listening, speech and time. How many misuses of speech would be avoided if we could all learn to speak like Rav Wolbe? How much conflict would not see the light of day? How much more would we feel the full value of those with whom we speak?

Even in little things, one saw the wisdom of Rav Wolbe's gentle and kind approach, which resonated much louder than the loudspeakers in the various stadiums that more popular Jewish leaders have recently used in their mass rallies. When speaking at his Beit haMussar in front of scores of people, he would stop speaking when someone needed to turn over a tape. As there were many people recording his lectures, there were usually several pauses, but apparently Rav Wolbe felt it was more important to wait so that the student would not miss part of what he had to say. It was not just out of respect for the student, but also out of respect for what he himself had to say: if our words are not measured and thought-out, it does not make too much difference if you miss a few of them while flipping over the tape. If we say only what needs to be said, however, then every word counts.

Mindfulness also means that Rav Wolbe would be careful about that which he taught. Completely absent from his talks and writings were gratuitous put-downs of non-Jews and non-religious Jews. His words were always measured, thought-out and intelligent.

Those familiar with my writings may have noticed that I have quoted Rav Wolbe more frequently than I have quoted any other rabbi living in our own generation. While I do not consider myself a disciple of Rav Wolbe, he was one of a very few contemporary rabbis who had something unique and important to say to those of us with a Western education.

A few years ago, I had a seminal discussion together with three outstanding Orthodox leaders and thinkers, all of whom had extensive secular educations. At some point in the discussion, Rav Wolbe's name came up as it turned out, all of us had relatively extensive connections to him. This was certainly no coincidence. Rather, many a serious yeshiva student who was also steeped in Western tradition saw Rav Wolbe as someone whom he could completely respect and trust.

In the mussar tradition, Rav Wolbe wrote about the greatness that can be attained by man. When he wrote this he had his own teachers in mind, perhaps not realizing to what extent he himself showed us the greatness that a man can attain.

In the final analysis, Rav Wolbe showed us what Jewish leadership can be. He was able to identify mindfulness as the most important religious issue today and to teach others about it in word and, even more important, in deed. In this sense, all of us who were exposed to him are his students. With his passing, we have no one to give such a powerful example. Yet part of the Talmudic wisdom of creating many students is that the totality of students, each by integrating part of their teacher's spiritual legacy, can recreate the whole.