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Above and Beyond

Yisroel Besser and Mishpacha Contributors

Rav Moshe Shapira drank from the reservoirs of virtually every major yeshivah, distilling their waters into his own unique offering of life-giving wisdom

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

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DIVINE CONDUIT From the beis medrash of Ponevezh to a group of Russian scientists who’d never before heard Torah, Rav Moshe Shapira was a fountain, transporting the infinite Divine wisdom to a narrow world (Photos: Mattis Goldberg, Rabbi Aubrey Hersh, Flash90, Mishpacha Archives)

He was surrounded by concentric circles of talmidim — a diverse array of roshei yeshivah, kollel yungeleit, academics, professionals, businessmen — drawn to his shiurim through the force of his incredible personality and the treasures he shared with them every week. Respected by the most prominent figures of the Torah world, yet always hovering slightly at its periphery, Rav Moshe Shapira drank from the reservoirs of virtually every major yeshivah, distilling their waters into his own unique offering of life-giving wisdom. With his passing this week, all those circles of talmidim have lost the focal point that gave them meaning and clarity.

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They struggled, the daily newspapers, to find the terms to express the loss. No attributes — neither gaon nor mechanech nor mekarev nor mekubal — came close to doing justice to Rav Moshe Shapira, who left this earthly world as the 10th of Teves draped its darkness over it. He has no famous yeshivah associated with him, no formal position that fully defined his ambit.

He was Reb Moshe, comfortable everywhere, belonging nowhere; the towering genius who attracted talmidim in the alleys and corners of a world so much smaller than him, leaving his mark on a generation of roshei yeshivah, rabbanim, and mechanchim who derived their inspiration from his persona and shiurim.

He was a man of the city bus, a figure you might see ducking into a small shul, then reappearing just as suddenly. You could see him davening in one of the shtieblach of Zichron Moshe or on a Brooklyn street corner or deep in conversation in the back of a shul in freezing Moscow.

Early On

The motion, the breadth, the insatiable quest for chochmah, was something he imbibed early on. His father, Reb Meir Yitzchok, was a relative of the Alter of Kelm and heir to his discipline and self-awareness. Reb Moshe, born in 1935, learned in Ohr Yisrael in his native Petach Tikvah before going to learn in Ponevezh, where he became one of the last talmidim of Rav Dessler, whom he referred to as mori v’rabi.

As a child, he often recalled, he felt drawn to the shtieblach of Tel Aviv, where the older generation of Polish war survivors held on to the rich, intense Yiddishkeit they’d known back in Europe. Reb Moshe cherished their vertlach, their ideas, their chiyus.

The Chazon Ish advised him to learn in Chevron, and during those years he heard shiurim from the Brisker Rav as well. Still a teenager, he’d absorbed and internalized so many vibrant paths, threads he’d later weave into a tapestry for six decades of talmidim.

He married Rabbanit Tzipporah, a daughter of Rav Aron Bialistotsky. She would distinguish herself in the classroom as a university lecturer with a PhD — but even more so, with her devotion to him, allowing, enabling, and encouraging him to keep learning, keep giving, keep teaching Torah.

Worn Shoes

His years in kollel were marked by exceptional growth in learning — and by exceptional poverty. There was no money for bus fare, and in later years, he described how his shoes were worn from all the walking back and forth to kollel. Torn shoes notwithstanding, veteran Mirrer talmidim remember their rebbi, Rav Nachum Partzovitz, rising to his feet every time the young talmid chacham with the bright eyes entered the beis medrash to speak with Reb Nachum, who would hurry to the back, eager to speak with Reb Moshe in learning.

He drank from many rebbeim, learning under Rav Michel Feinstein, later meeting Rav Yitzchok Hutner and learned from him as well. He once recalled his late-night sessions with Rav Hutner: tThey would learn kisvei Arizal for several hours, after which Reb Moshe would walk back from Rav Hutner’s Mattersdorf apartment to Bayit V’gan, his feet carrying him in sheer excitement at the new worlds opening before him.

In time, Reb Moshe joined with Rav Hutner, Rav Dov Schwartzman, and other brilliant talmidei chachamim in the formation of Beis Hatalmud. From there, Reb Moshe joined the staff at Ohr Somayach. His stream of influence meandered through different yeshivos at different times until names became meaningless — it was about the man and his Torah.

Rav Moshe and his rebbetzin moved to America for several years in the early 1980s when their daughter, Shulamis, took ill. He joined the hanhalah of the Yeshivas Bais Binyomin in Stamford, making a mark on American bochurim. The young girl eventually passed away and her parents returned home.

After the tragedy, the man who was a master of Shas with Rishonim, familiar with Midrash, kabbalah, and kisvei kadmonim, developed a special connection with Mishnayos — delivering in-depth shiurim in Zera’im and Taharos until the end of his life. Avreichim in his kollel noticed that the shiurim he delivered, incisive as they were, often revolved around the Mishnah, bringing the Gemara back to its source. (Later in life, he would head a yeshivah called Shev Shmaatsa, which was named in tribute to her, using her initials.)

One Big Sefer Torah

People would hear Reb Moshe speak, just once, and find themselves transfixed by the precision, clarity, the glimpse at the vastness of Torah. They would line up to speak with him — and suddenly, they too were talmidim.

In the same day, he could give a shiur to a group of fresh baalei teshuvah, then a private shiur to leading roshei yeshivah, some of the most accomplished talmidei chachamim of the generation.

What was he teaching them?

Others have mourned Reb Moshe as the father of machshavah, but close talmidim suggest a different term: Reb Moshe was teaching emunah. Some listeners were distracted by the dazzling structure of the shiur, the mesmerizing presentation, but those who heard him — who really heard — perceived that he was a purveyor of faith, of connection with HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

His call was to look deeper, beneath the surface, to plumb the pasuk or Mishnah or idea and find a new reality. And, by extension, to look beneath the surface of this world, to see past the noise and commotion and diversions, and see Him!

“For 40 years,” he recently told a talmid, “I’ve been teaching one thing: emunah.”

The phrase he used, again and again, zeh megaleh mah sheme’eiver. Look deeper. The whole world, he would say, is composed of ma’amaros, Hashem’s utterances. The ma’amaros are composed of words, which are composed of letters. And thus, he would conclude, the whole world is one big sefer Torah.

He abhorred superficiality. He once commented that anyone who studies pictures of pre–World War II Jewish children will notice an astuteness and intelligence in their eyes. “Yet,” he continued, “our children today don’t seem to have that same chochmah in their eyes, as if there’s an ‘orlah’ covering our generation: What is it?

“Ich mein, I believe,” he continued, “that it’s television. They’ve seen too much superficiality and inaction.”

Life is the sefer Torah; the pretenses and contrived scenarios are its opposite.

For Reb Moshe, what could be better than studying Ramban in the Spanish palace where his 1263 Disputation of Barcelona took place

Rav Ari Waxman, mashgiach at Yeshivat Sha’alvim, took a talmid headed back to an American university to Reb Moshe for a farewell brachah. Reb Moshe gave the young man three pieces of advice — to refrain from watching television, to keep a netilas yadayim basin near his bed, and to be stringent about zeman Krias Shema.

A talmid was returning to learn in kollel in America, and he and his wife were worried about leaving Eretz Yisrael. “Keep a netilas yadim cup and basin near his bed,” Reb Moshe advised the wife, “and if he’s remiss, then we will pull him back here, to Eretz Yisrael, together.”

One Vort Back

When Afikei Mayim, a sefer of Reb Moshe’s Torah on the Yamim Tovim written with Reb Moshe’s haskamah, was published by a devoted talmid, I was charged with selling the sefer at the various weekly shiurim.

I reasoned that I would ask the attendees at one shiur where the next one would be held, and so on. I was disappointed.

Those in one chaburah had no idea about the existence of the other. He raced from one to another — there were close to 40 shiurim each week and I covered less than a quarter of them.

I tried my best, using resourcefulness and chutzpah, to stitch together this string of chaburos and shiurim. I noticed two things: Reb Moshe usually began exactly where he’d left off the week before, and the shuls he chose were generally off the beaten path, interesting little out-of-the-way places. At one shiur, I remember, Reb Tzvi Cheshin picked up the new sefer and looked through it. “The Rebbi,” he said, referring to Reb Moshe, “often says that every man has one vort: It’s what he says with his life, throughout his life, again and again. This sefer captures Reb Moshe’s vort.”

And what was Reb Moshe’s vort? I asked a close talmid.

He answers with one word, the word Reb Moshe used in every shiur, whatever the topic or sefer in front of him.

Chayim.

“Cha-yim!” Reb Moshe would exclaim, wonder and delight in his voice. It was all about connecting with life, with the Source of life, of experiencing life, of squeezing the maximum amount of chiyus out of a mitzvah, out of a moment.

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