Chol Hamoed Pesach is the yahrzeit of the Gaon Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik. zt"l, my rebbie's oldest brother. I remember in 1993 the hesped which we heard at the old Brisk building on Peterson from a phone hookup from Boston (that is on the yutorah website; I think it is a tape from Chicago because I'm pretty sure I know the voice telling someone where to sit during the tehillim before the hesped). I never saw Brisk so packed.
The characteristic of the Rav I have been thinking about recently is his ability to put everything aside and focus on the Gemara in front of him right now. There is a famous story how he asked a question in Shiur, a talmid gave an answer, and the Rav said it was a terrible answer. "But the Rav gave that answer in Shiur yesterday!" said the talmid. I heard 2 versions of what happened next; perhaps they happened on different occasions. One is "That is no excuse for a bad answer." The other way I heard it was that the Rav replied "I'm not interested in what the Rav said yesterday." Rav Yoshe Ber was able to forget (he probably didn't, but pretended he did) his previous explanations and learned the sugya as if he never saw it before. He really fulfilled "Tamid yihyu b'einacha chadashos," and he captured the excitement of Aharon Hakohen who lit the menora every day as if it was his first time doing that mitzvah. (L'havdil, some call this process of having this open mind about an issue beginner's mind.)
The Rav wrote in Halakhic Man that when someone makes a chiddush, he becomes a partner with Hakadosh Baruch hu in maaseh Breishis. There is no living as when you reach this level. L'havdil, last week in the WSJ golfer Greg Norman described what it felt like when he was performing at his peak: "When everything is in sync, you feel like you're gliding through space. Things happen in slow motion. The wind feels different, the light is different, your eyesight is more acute. Each blade of grass seems to pop out. You've pushed yourself to the very maximum of your finely tuned ability to play. That's why you're leading the tournament." You see everything in super-clarity; it is hard to describe. But it is just as true in the world of ideas when learning Torah as it is for sports figure playing his sport.
Yet some might question this because the Rav described that when he gave shiur , the Rambam entered the room, thew Raavad entered the room. Rabbeinu Hakadosh was in the room; Abaye and Rava were in the room. The Rashba and Ramban were in the room, and Rav Chayim was in the room. You may ask, that is closed mindedness, you are thinking about other things? But that is precisely what the focus and open-mindedness is. It was taking the Torah from the baalei hamesorah and understanding it. Instead of, for example, saying shiur in front of a mirror and thinking, this is what shiur is - it's about my brilliance in explaining it, he did the opposite, the only true way to give shiur: as a process of the mesorah. Moshe Kibeil Torah misinai umasrah liYehoshua, v'Yehoshua l'Neviim etc. This is the Torah we received by Moshe Rabbeinu. It went through the Chachmei Hamesorah, through Rabbeinu Hakadosh, up to and including Ravina and Rav Ashi. And then the Rishonim explained the Torah Shebal Peh of the Gemara, and all we are doing is understanding what they said, which is really what the Amora'im said.
In succeeding at that, the Mesorah came alive. Yaakov lo mes. When we learn the mesorah not when trying to shoehorn a great thought we had about it into it, but by trying to find the simple peshat of what the amoraim and rishonim were saying, and making ourselves small in comparison to them, that is the only time we actually are great. When our perspective is proper, we can achieve great heights. Rav Yoshe Ber became a shutaf with Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
Rav Yoshe Ber lo mes. As Rav Ahron said at the hesped, do not give up to the keys of the great edifices [of Torah] Rav Yoshe Ber built. If we remember this need to keep an open mind- a simple idea but extremely difficult in practice - we can acheive great heights. To only say over his peshatim is very good, but he didn't only teach us Torah, he taught us how to learn Torah. To really learn Torah is an experience unlike any other; it is fusing together the great Shalsheles Hakabalah. And when we do this, using the keys Rav Yoshe Ber gave us, we are not living in the past; not in Washington Heights in 1975, not in Brisk, not in Vilna; not in Alexandria, Spain, Aragon or Provence; not in Sura and Pumpedisa; not in Yavneh or Usha or Tzipori, not even in the Lishkas Hagazis. We are back at Har Sinai. And Har Sinai wasn't something that happened 3300 years ago. It is still happening. If only we have the focus and concentration to realize it. L'havdil we are like a radio who need the proper antenna to receive those waves. When we fuse ourselves with the chachmei hamesorah, as Rav Yoshe Ber did, we are truly living in the present.