Thanks to Rav Mordechai Torczyner, who had this piece on his blog The Rebbetzin’s Husband:
Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik
The following is excerpted from the book Man of Faith in the Modern World (Ktav Publishing), based on lectures of Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, o.b.m. The incident described was recounted by Rabbi Soloveitchik as his own, personal experience:
The old Rabbi walks into the classroom crowded with students who are young enough to be his grandchildren. He enters as an old man with a wrinkled face, his eyes reflecting the fatigue and sadness of old age.
The Rabbi is seated and sees before him rows of young, beaming faces, clear eyes radiating the joy of being young. For a moment, the Rabbi is gripped with pessimism, with tremors of uncertainty. He asks himself, “Can there be a dialogue between an old teacher and young students, between a Rabbi in his Indian summer and students enjoying the spring of their lives?” The Rabbi starts the class in Talmud, uncertain as to how it will proceed.
Suddenly, the door opens and an old man, much older than the Rabbi, enters. He is the grandfather of the Rabbi, Reb Chaim Brisker (1853-1918). It would be most difficult to study Talmud with students who are trained in the sciences and mathematics, were it not for his method, which is very modern and equals, if not surpasses, most contemporary forms of logic, metaphysics, or philosophy.
The door opens again and another old man comes in. He is older than Reb Chaim, for he lived in the seventeenth century. His name is Reb Shabtai Cohen, known as the Shach, who must be present when civil law is discussed. Many more visitors arrive, some from the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, and others harking back to antiquity–Rabbenu Tam, Rashi, Rambam, Rabad, Rashba, Rabbi Akiva, and others. These scholarly giants of the past are bidden to take their seats.
The Rabbi introduces the guests to his pupils, and the dialogue commences. The Rambam states a halacha; the Rabad disagrees sharply, as is his wont. Some students interrupt to defend the Rambam, and they express themselves harshly against the Rabad, as young people are apt to do. The Rabbi softly corrects the students and suggests more restrained tones. The Rashba smiles gently. The Rabbi tries to analyze what the students meant, and other students intercede. Rabbenu Tam is called upon to express his opinion, and, suddenly, a symposium of generations comes into existence. Young students debate earlier generations with an air of daring familiarity, and a crescendo of discussion ensues.
All speak one language; all pursue one goal; all are committed to a common vision and all operate within the same categories. A mesora collegiality is achieved, a friendship, a comradeship of old and young, spanning antiquity, the Middle Ages, and modern times. This joining of the generations, this merger of identities will ultimately bring about the redemption of the Jewish people. It will fulfill the words of the last of the Hebrew prophets, Malachi, “And he [Elijah] shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers” (3:24). The Messianic realization will witness the great dialogue of the generations.
After a two or three-hour class, the Rebbe emerges from the chamber young and rejuvenated. He has defeated age. The students look exhausted. In the mesora experience–giving over from generation to generation–years play no role. Hands, however parchment-dry and wrinkled, embrace warm and supple hands in a commonalty, bridging the gap which separates the generations.
Thus, the “old ones” of the past continue their great dialogue of the generations, ensuring an enduring commitment to the mesora–this is the secret that will lead to the Messianic Redemption.