HaRav HaGaon Rav Moshe Shapira: The Irreplaceable Chad B'Doro
Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky, Rosh Yeshivas Greater Washington, concluded his hesped for HaRav HaGaon Rav Moshe Shapira, zt"l, the night after the levaya, with a true story recorded by the famous neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks:
A great artist was in a serious car accident. Happily his eye was not directly affected, but he suffered neurological damage that prevented him from seeing colors. His world became one of black and white and shades of gray. At first, he was despondent and saw no further point in living. But eventually he started drawing again this time using charcoal to convey the world as he saw it. In time, he gained renewed fame in the new medium.
Some years later, a neurologist approached him and told him that he had developed a technique of brain stimulation that could return his ability to see colors.
"Had you developed this technique at the time of my accident," the artist replied, "I would have paid any amount of money for your treatment. But now I'm used to the new medium and comfortable working in it. So I'd prefer not to undergo the treatment."
Rabbi Lopiansky ended with a prayer that we not respond to loss of the light that was Rav Moshe by becoming accustomed to a world of black and gray.
Not becoming used to that world requires first that we try to grasp even a fraction of the light that has been lost.
NO ONE in our generation had so many talmidim as Rav Moshe. By talmidim I do not mean those who attended his always packed public shiurim, listened to the thousands of those shiurim available on Kol Halashon or reviewed the excellent write-ups of his Thursday parashah shiur, or even to all those who were members of smaller vaadim, where admission required his personal permission. Of those, there are literally thousands.
By talmidim, I mean those for whom he opened up their eyes to a world they knew not, and for whom the excitement of that encounter led them to dedicate their lives to following his path. To be a talmid does not mean being able to say over a shiur or ra'ayon of the rebbe. It means to be willing to strive with your own intellect to add new insights based on his example.
Rav Moshe credited Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler with having first done for him what he would do for his generation. As a young boy in Bnei Brak, he was playing outside the Ponevezh beis medrash when there was a power outage. Through an open window, he heard Rav Dessler reciting over and over again in the dark, a maimar Chazal, in the manner of Mussar. The exposure to Rav Dessler going deeper and deeper with every repetition of the same words left an indelible impact.
Later, as a bochur in Ponevezh, he lived in Rav Dessler's home, after the passing of the latter's wife. Rav Dessler noted his poetic nature, love of metaphor, and sensitivity to language, and directed him to the study of the Maharal. That study would prove lifelong
He drove himself to understand seforim that were considered beyond the grasp of our generation: e.g., the Gaon's commentary on Tzafra D'Tzniusa or the works of the Arizal. Once revealed, he believed, the insights of previous generations were part of morasha kehilas Yaakov, and, as such, accessible to those willing to be amal over the words of the greatest of our predecessors, while showing no mercy to themselves.
He was a master of the revealed Torah, of halachah, of proper derech eretz. But he also opened the eyes of a generation to the Hidden Torah, and offered a portal to the aspect of Torah as an emanation of the infinite Divine Mind.
True, many of us who attended shiurim for decades only grasped a small part of what he was saying. Yet even for us, just having his image before our eyes provided our closest connection to Torah. For whatever our own individual confusions, our questions, our difficulties, when we listened to him, we knew that at least one person had everything figured out, everything understood b'etzem and in its proper place.
We knew that the Torah was true because we saw that for Rav Moshe it was a perfectly seamless web. Those who attended different chaburos – perek Cheilek, Nefesh HaChaim, Hilchos Talmud Torah – would often compare notes at the end of the week and find that Rav Moshe had addressed common themes in each while remaining faithful to the different texts being studied.
For decades, he spoke twice a year – once before Shavuos and once before Rosh Hashanah – on the theme of tichleh shanah ve'kilelosehah. Yet the well never ran dry, and no shiur was a repetition of an earlier one. And again, even the least among us experienced in those shiurim a taste of the infinite depth in every word of Torah – not just as a belief to be recited by rote but as a living reality.
But beyond the thousands who were uplifted, even without full understanding, there were dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of close talmidim who delved into the sources which he had mastered. Wherever in the world there are those providing access to the deeper levels of Torah today – in Silver Spring and Lawrence and London and Flatbush, as well as in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak – the source of the inspiration is likely to be one of his talmidim.
RAV MOSHE NEVER had his own yeshiva, and we can see the Hashgachah clearly in retrospect. Because he was not confined to one beis medrash, his personal influence was felt in dozens, and his Torah spread around the world. He gave thirty to forty shiurim a week for decades. A few were public shiurim, but most were private vaadim.
It is beyond comprehension how one person could have known so much in order to teach so much at such a level. He spoke in public without notes, and made it look effortless, yet every one of those shiurim or vaadim required hours and hours of preparation, though the preparation might have taken place years earlier. Some vaadim were comprised exclusively of roshei yeshiva or others of comparable stature, who were themselves masters of sisrei Torah. Every member of his vaad in Seder Taharos, for instance, is himself a talmid chacham muflag.
He traveled the world to spread Torah. In his last years, he led a Seder in Russia every year. His explanation was simple: "In Jerusalem, they don't need me. Here I'm told they need me."
His message to his talmidim was the same: Spread Torah wherever it is not found, whether it be in the secular school system in Israel or to farflung communities around the world. He pushed those close to him to leave their comfort zones and to go out to teach and spread Torah.
One of his sons related in his hesped how he had once come into his father's room when he was under sedation following an operation, and heard him repeating over and over again, "Everything you did, you did for Kavod Shomayim." Later, he asked his father to whom he was referring, and Rav Moshe replied, "Moshe Rabbeinu."
Following that example, Rav Moshe pushed himself beyond human limits for Kavod Shomayim, and drove those close to him to do the same. "We are not here just to rearrange the furniture," I heard him say in one Tu B'Shevat shiur. Rather our task is to become partners with Hashem in bringing Creation back to tis primordial perfection before the Sin of Adam. That is what drove him, and that is the message he instilled in his followers.
HE WAS ONE of the first to discern that the time was ripe for a ba'al teshuva movement. He succeeded Rav Dov Schwartzman as rosh kollel of the Ohr Somayach Kollel, and for close to thirty years his Thursday night Chumash shiur was in the Ohr Somayach beis hamedrash. To some extent, ba'alei teshuva, many of them coming from sophisticated academic backgrounds, created a natural audience for his multi-layered Torah. And they were the vehicle through which he reached the larger world.
Few things pained him as much as the fact that many found in our batei medrash learn dutifully, but without a real ta'am in Torah learning and lacking the feeling of the light shining forth from the words under discussion. Rav Moshe understood that if he started revealing that light to some of the ba'alei teshuva whom he was teaching, word would get out to the Olam Hayeshivos and others would come to partake as well. And they did.
RAV MOSHE THE MOST SERIOUS PERSON I ever met.. Everything he taught, he lived. One experienced yiras harommemus in his presence. (I still bear black and blue marks on my shins from being kicked in one vaad by fellow members who feared I might fall asleep.) Yet in private, he was able to relate to every Jew at his level, and he was unsparing with himself as to what he would do to lift some burden from the shoulders of those who approached him.
His letter to a talmid whose wife had given birth to a Down Syndrome baby has provided solace for many others in similar circumstances. He once spent over two hours on Yom Kippur speaking about shaylos in emunah with a struggling bochur. Those diagnosed with serious illnesses, with children who were not finding their place, whatever the problem, found a ready ear, as great as were the demands were on his time.
THE MAGNITTUDE of his loss to Klal Yisroel is beyond comprehension, and it has not yet been internalized that we are now living in a world without him. But if there is any solace, and assurance that we are not doomed to live forever more in a world of only black and gray, it lies in in Rav Moshe's explication of the Gemara in Megilah (13b). The Gemara relates that Haman was delighted when he cast the pur and it came out in Adar, for he knew that Moshe Rabbeinu had passed away in Adar.
But what Haman did not know was that Moshe Rabbeinu was born the same day he passed away – 7 Adar. As Rav Moshe explained, he did not see the cycle, and that the darkness that came into the world with the death of Moshe could be the source of rebirth. The longing for what was loss on the part of Klal Yisroel could bring a new infusion of light. That is why the symbol of Adar is the swift hind. Longing leads us to rush after the light that was extinguished. And in that yearning lie the roots of Geulah.
May we be zocheh to live in a world filled with knowledge of Hashem, a world Rav Moshe did so much to reveal and bring into being.
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 – Ponevezh, Chevron, Mir, and Brisk -- but belonged to none. 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.
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.