HaRav HaGaon Rav Moshe Shapira: The Irreplaceable Echad B'Doro
The first time I asked Rav Moshe Shapira, zt"l, a question in my public position as editor of Yated Ne'eman, he told me, "There are questions that embarrass the one who is asked." I understood him to mean that my hargasha about a certain matter was correct and I should not have felt the need to ask. But that response left me acutely sensitive to the possibility that my ignorance might ever constitute a diminution of his greatness. Consequently, I would never call myself a talmid of Rav Moshe lest I embarrass him.
For each one of the twenty or so times I quoted him in print, there were another four times when I was trying to express an idea heard from him but was to afraid to attach his name in case I had misunderstood.
To be a true talmid one would have had to immerse oneself in the vast wellsprings from which he extracted the "or ganuz – hidden light of Torah" for our generation. And one would need to have understood enough of what he gave over to extrapolate and shine new light. Rav Moshe opened up new sources and new approaches, but he expected those who drank from his waters of Torah to go further.
A Chevron bochur told one of my sons on the day of the levaya, "I only spoke to Rav Moshe twice, but they left an indelible impression. At my bar mitzvah, I was discussing the familiar yeshiva chakira whether sefiras haomer is one extended mitzvah or many. Suddenly, Rav Moshe stopped me and asked, 'So,what do you think?' Five or so years later, I asked him, "HaRav, there are so many drachim in Torah. Which one is right?' He replied, 'That is why Hashem gave you seichel, for you to decide for yourself.' Both messages were one: There is no substitute for thinking yourself."
There were hundreds of talmidim who met both criteria, including some of the leading roshei yeshiva of our day – e.g., Rav Dovid Cohen, Rav Shmuel Yaakov Borenstein. For decades, Rav Moshe gave an astounding thirty or more chaburos or shiurim a week – some public but most for select groups. The chaburah in Seder Taharos, for instance, was made up of only talmidei chachamim muflagim. And there were those in kabbalah where all the members of the Vaad were of rosh yeshiva stature and themselves experts in sisrei Torah.
Besides those deserving of the title talmid of Rav Moshe, there were thousands more, like myself, who attended his shiurim, reviewed the written versions that circulated, and listened to tapes, for whom any access we had to the upper realms of Torah was through Rav Moshe or his disciples. Without daring to call ourselves talmidim, we would not have hesitated to point to Rav Moshe as the most important influence on our relationship to Torah.
Even on the frequent occasions when I was unable to grasp one of the shiurim, I did not regret going. As long as the image of Rav Moshe was before my eyes, I knew that however many pieces of the puzzle I am missing, there was one person for whom all the mysteries of Creation were an open book, for whom every event fit into a larger picture. Those who attended different chaburos – perek Chelek, Nefesh HaChaim, Hilchos Talmud Torah – would often compare notes for the week and find that Rav Moshe had addressed common themes in each while remaining faithful to the different texts being studied.
RAV MOSHE HAD A SPECIAL PLACE IN HIS HEART for ba'alei teshuva – that was an expression of his passion for spreading Torah. When I first came to Ohr Somayach nearly 38 years ago, Rav Moshe had just succeeded another Torah giant, Rav Dov Schwartzman, zt"l, as the rosh kollel for an extraordinary group of ba'alei teshuva.
It is appropriate that his largest public shiur was given in Ohr Somayach for more than two decades, for ba'alei teshuva, many coming from sophisticated academic backgrounds, helped to create the audience for the multi-layered, deep Torah he was offering. Many of his leading expositors – e.g., Rabbi Akiva Tatz, Rabbi Mordechai Becher, Rabbi Jeremy Kagan, Rabbi Beryl Gershenfeld – come from the ranks of the ba'alei teshuva (and the list of prominent and prolific Hebrew-speaking ba'alei teshuva who were his talmidim would be as long or longer.)
Rav Moshe was the address to which brilliant questioners of all stripes were directed. Benny Levy, one of the leaders of the 1968 French student revolt and later the leading disciple of Jean-Paul Sartre, was one whom Rav Moshe helped bring to Torah. Rav Moshe's hesped after Levy's early passing laid bare the depth of the relationship. Gidon Sar, former minister and a potential future prime minister, was another with whom Rav Moshe learned privately. A rosh kollel told me after Rav Moshe's passing that he found him most accessible in his conversations with groups of fresh ba'alei teshuva and potential ba'alei teshuva, who still addressed him with the familiar "you."
He served as nasi, gave shiurim, and helped raise funds for numerous kollelim of ba'alei teshuva and for Pischei Olam, a yeshiva for Israeli ba'alei teshuva from academic backgrounds, headed by his talmid Rabbi Eliezer Faivelson.
NO ONE IN OUR GENERATION reached more Jews with Torah of comparable depth. He revealed Torah not only in its halachic aspects or as a guide to every aspect of our behavior, but also as chochma, as the portal to the infinite Divine mind – a chochma that can only be received via a teacher. Every public shiur – the Thursday night shiur, leil Tisha B'Av, Hoshanah Rabba, or those in Yeshiva Sha'arei Yoshuv in Lawrence – was standing room only, no matter how large the beis medrash.
There is a flourishing cottage industry of seforim based on his shiurim, and superb write-ups of his shiurim by Rabbi Moshe Antebbe and Rabbi Doniel Baron circulate in the thousands weekly. Thousands more download the shiurim from Kol Halashon. One can listen to a single shiur multiple times in succession and still experience the thrill of discovering new depths on each listening. For decades, Rav Moshe spoke on tichleh hashana b'klilosecha twice a year – once before Shavuos and once before Rosh Hashanah – without the well going dry.
He was a product of the great yeshivos – Ponevez, Chevron, Mirrer, and Brisk. As a bochur, he lived for several years in the home of Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, after the passing of the latter's wife. And he credited Rav Dessler with having twice told him something that changed his life. One was to study the Maharal. Rav Dessler understood the poetic nature of his soul, and discerned that his love of metaphor and multiple layers of understanding would find its salve in the Maharal. (Not by accident has one of his closest talmidim, Rabbi Yehoshua Hartman, published the multi-volume Gur Aryeh Chumash and numerous other annotated volumes on the works of the Maharal. Rav Moshe and he traveled at least once a year to the kever of the Maharal.
But though he was a shem davar in the world of the yeshivos from his youth – many said of him that he was the greatest ba'al kishron they ever met – his Torah was available to all.Kippot serugot were liberally sprinkled throughout his public shiurim and around his table and living room on Purim.
IT IS DOUBTFUL that there is another figure in our time who served as mentor and guide to so many hundreds of talmidim. They needed him not because of their timidity but because he constantly pushed them in new directions and far from their comfort zones. In the midst of a Tu B'Shevat shiur on the fruit tree as a metaphor for the creative power of Man to bring forth fruits that exist together with him but are not identical with him, he suddenly interjected: "We are not here to rearrange the furniture: We are here to become partners with Hashem in returning Creation to its primordial perfection."
That is how he lived. In his last years, he led a Seder in Russia every year. Asked why, he responded, "In Jerusalem, they don't need me. Here, I'm told they need me." He constantly prodded his talmidim to go out and do and teach, often in farflung locales or unfamiliar circumstances. They listened, but only on condition that he would still be there to guide them.
One young activist who has created a large organization to teach Torah in secular and dati leumi Israeli schools and another organization bringing together frum and non-frum Israelis to argue with one another based on Torah sources, told me recently, "How can I possibly function without being able to constantly ask Rav Moshe what are the proper boundaries? He guided me every step of the way. And was always there for our questions."
The levaya was on Aseres b'Teves, which is described as the darkest of the fasts in the darkest time of the year. In one shiur on the day, Rav Moshe asked why is the siege of Jerusalem independently a cause of morning. He answered, "Torah goes out from Tzion. When Tzion is besieged, the light of Torah can no longer be expressed in the same way."
Tzion and Yosef, he pointed out, have the same Gematria (156). Yosef is the flame that goes forth from the fire of Yaakov; the power of the Torah of Yaakov to spread and conquer Esav, until the world is filled with knowledge of Hashem.
Rav Moshe Shapira was the Yosef of our generation. Oy lanu on the flame that has been extinguished and the darkness in which we are left.