Rav Ahron Lopiansky, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva of Greater Washington, concluded his hesped for Rav Moshe Shapiro zt”l, the night after the levaya, with a moshol:
A great artist was in a serious car accident. While happily his eye was not directly affected, 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.”
Rav Lopiansky ended with a prayer that we not respond to the loss of the world of light that was Rav Moshe Shapiro 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 parsha shiur, nor even to those who were members of smaller va’adim, 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 the encounter led them to dedicate their lives to following his path. To be a talmid does not mean being able to say a shiur or ra’ayon of the rebbi. 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 Ponovezh bais medrash when there was a power outage. Through an open window, he heard Rav Dessler reciting over and over again in the dark a maamar 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 Ponovezh, 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 for seventy years to understand seforim that were considered beyond the grasp of our generation: e.g., the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Tzafra Detzniusa or the works of the Arizal. Once revealed, he believed, the insights of previous generations were part of morasha kehillas 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 halacha, 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 vekeleloseha. Yet, the well never ran dry, and no shiur was just a repetition of an earlier one. And again, even the least among us experienced 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 that 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 Yerushalayim 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 Hashgacha clearly in retrospect. Because he was not confined to one bais 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 va’adim.
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 va’adim 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 chochom muflag.
He traveled the world to spread Torah. In his last years, he led a Pesach Seder in Russia every year. His explanation was simple: “In Yerushalayim, 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 in far-flung communities around the world. He pushed those close to him to leave their comfort zones and go out to teach and spread Torah.
His son Avrohom related in his hesped how he had once entered his father’s room when he was under sedation following an operation, and he heard him repeating over and over again, “Everything he did, he did for Klal Yisroel.” 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 Klal Yisroel and kevod 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 its primordial perfect state 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 baal teshuvah 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 bais medrash. To some extent, baalei teshuvah, many of them coming from sophisticated academic backgrounds, created a natural audience for his multi-layered Torah. And to some extent, 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 botei 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 extraordinary level of baalei teshuvah 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 WAS A DEEPLY SERIOUS PERSON. Everything he taught, he lived. One experienced yiras haromemus in his presence. 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 the demands were on his time.
THE MAGNITUDE 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 Rav Moshe’s own explication of the Gemara in Maseches Megillah (13b), which 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 about.