Rabbi Moshe Twerski was a Jew from another world. He was an angel among men. He was the paradigm of holiness and purity, a Tzadik in every sense of the word.
I had the privilege of studying under him when I was 18 years old and being a guest at his Shabbat table almost every Friday night for three years while I was in Jerusalem. When the meal was over and the other guests had left, I would remain in his home to learn with him until the late hours of the night.
Before we would begin, he would bring me some cake and soda – as if I hadn’t been completely satiated by the delicious food of his rebbetzin, which is famous throughout Jerusalem – while he would go off to a corner to repeat the Shema with intense Kavana, meticulously saying every word. He would return, take off his jacket – it was the only time I saw him that casual – and dive into our learning session.
Rabbi Twerski was brilliant. All of his students thought he knew everything in Torah. The son of a Harvard professor, he was also well versed in secular subjects. But when we would learn together, he would treat me as an equal. He would ask me questions and accept my answers. He would make suggestions and retract if I didn’t agree. It is from him I learned that even when teaching Torah to students who are not as learned, teachers must be vulnerable and honest and include their students in the learning process.
After these sessions were over, no matter how late it was, we would spend a few minutes discussing some of the more personal things in my life. He would advise me, guide me, or sometimes just listen. When I would finally leave his house, usually long past midnight, sometimes after 2 a.m., I would begin to digest all of the inspiration. The hour-long walk felt like 15 minutes.
I would often come back to Yeshiva from these Friday nights on such a high that going to sleep was simply not an option. So I would go into the study hall of my Yeshiva and open up a book of Chumash or Talmud to study, or sneak in to the kitchen and grab a bowl of chicken soup or cholent, or get into a deep, meaningful conversation with any other of the crazy students still up at that hour (there were always a few) until I could catch the first morning services at sunrise.
These were the most transformative experiences of my life.
Rabbi Twerski was brutally murdered on Tuesday in an attack on his synagogue while he was wrapped in tallit and tefillin, immersed in prayer. His loss is a terrible one for the Jewish people.
But hasn’t that become the pattern? In this very mysterious world we live in, doesn’t it seem that when the Almighty allows the side of Evil a victory in this world, it is always the purest souls who get called to reunite with their Maker? Could it be that their loss provides some kind of protection for the rest of us? Who knows? Only God.
Rabbi Twerski descended from two dynasties. From his mother’s side, he was the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik, founder of Yeshiva University, and a member of the illustrious Soloveichick family whose teachings and writings on the Talmud and Maimonidies redefined the way the Yeshiva world analyzes texts, taking every law and statement of our Sages to a depth that no one had previously taught.
From his father’s side, he was from the famous Chassidic Twerski dynasty, the grandson of Rabbi Meshullam Twersky, the Tolner rebbe of Boston. In fact, until the day he died he students would lovingly refer to him as “the Rebbuh,” which means Chassidic Grand Rabbi.
Rabbi Twerski brought together these two worlds, the world of Talmudic scholars with the world of Chassidic spirituality, in harmonious and seamless way. When he studied Torah, he carried the breadth of Torah knowledge on his fingertips. During his discourses, he would compare and contrast texts from a wide range of sources, sometimes the most obscure places.
And when he would perform Mitzvot he would do so with a fire, passion and tremendous joy. Though his tall and broad frame, deep eyes and quiet demeanor often made him a bit intimidating, when he was serving God he would look like a kid in a candy store, often to the amusement of his amazing and righteous wife, who would watch him with eyes full of love and affection. He would take on every stringency he could, not because he was trying to be obsessive in any way, but because for him this would add another layer to performing the Mitzvah, making it all the more special.
I looked through my Yeshiva album last night. There I have pictures of me dancing with Rabbi Twerski in front of his Chanuka candles (with enough oil in those cups, you would think they could burn for eight straight days), pictures of me leaning over him in my Purim costume listening closely to the sweet words of Torah he would share to the many groups of students who would file into his house, and pictures of him immersed in Torah learning in some of the most distracting situations. It is surreal to think that something like this could happen.
But I take comfort in remembering Rabbi Twerski’s favorite song, which he would always ask me to start at his Shabbos table, the words taken from the book of Psalms. V’ani B’Chasdicha Batachti (I believe in Your [Hashem’s]kindness), Ashira Lashem (I will sing to God), Ki Gamal Alai (for he has rewarded me). I know that Rabbi Twerski must have fulfilled his mission in this world, and that he is now singing this song in the presence of the Almighty.
Rabbi Shlomo Buxbaum is director of Aish of Greater Washington.