By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
If someone were to ask: How does a talmid chochom look? How does he walk? How does he talk? How does he sound? How does he present himself? I would think of Rav Moshe Shapiro and paint a picture of him.
Everything about him spoke of greatness molded by Torah and gedolei Torah. He personified and represented the immaculate, impeccable, flawless tzuras ha’odom. He carried himself with perfect dignity, yet spoke to people with fabulous humility. He embodied the gadlus ha’odom of Slabodka and the atzilus and discipline of Kelm. His knowledge was prodigious. He seemed to know and remember everything.
How do you describe Rav Moshe to someone who never met him or heard him speak? You open Pirkei Avos and you study it. Mishnah after Mishnah describes Rav Moshe. Our Rav Moshe. The one who walked among us. The one who just left us. And we are bereft without the huge light that exposed and opened the Torah for so many.
Rav Moshe gave hundreds, if not thousands, of shiurim on Pirkei Avos and understood it on so many levels you never thought fathomable until you heard his shiurim and studied them.
And studied him.
He opened the da’as of his talmidim to the seforim and teachings of the Vilna Gaon and Rav Chaim Volozhiner; Rav Tzadok Hakohein and the Izhbitzer; the Maharal and the Ramchal; the Rambam and the Ramban; Abaye and Rava. In his shiur room, they came alive. Their words were alive. Their teachings were alive. As Rav Moshe’s thoughts meshed with theirs, you were wowed and overcome.
Once, while delivering a shiur to us at Yeshiva Bais Binyomin of Stamford, CT, on a complicated calculation in Maseches Yevamos, Rav Moshe suddenly stopped speaking. The silence hung in the room as the talmidim waited for their rebbi to continue. Rav Moshe appeared lost in thought, concentrating on the cheshbon he was in the middle of working out.
Suddenly, he spoke.
“Rabbosai!” he exclaimed. “You should know that un Torah, without Torah, iz gornit, there is nothing!”
Then he returned to explaining the sugya.
That was Rav Moshe. Torah was everything to him. It was his world. It was the entire world. He was so enraptured by Torah that it took over his entire being, transformed him and left him in a state of ecstasy.
With one sentence, he invested a roomful of bochurim with a lifelong sense of appreciation for the power and meaning of every line of Gemara and each diyuk in Rashi, lifting the curtain and allowing them to see reality.
A friend was at a bus stop in Yerushalayim when he saw Rav Moshe off in the distance walking to the stop for his ride home to Bayit Vegan. The 21 bus that he needed pulled up at the stop, while Rav Moshe was still some distance away. Rav Moshe saw the bus and knew that his chances of making it were slim if he didn’t hurry.
My friend watched as Rav Moshe continued walking at the pace at which he always walked. Like he was a prince. He walked like a prince. He carried himself like a prince.
The bus driver noticed the respectable person headed for the stop and waited for him, but that is beside the point. Rav Moshe carried himself with an awareness of who he was and what he represented. With that bigger image in front of him, missing the bus was not the deciding factor in how he would walk. Though humble enough to travel by bus, the significance of his role and what he represented defined his actions, not the smaller issue of the inconvenience of missing a bus.
The embodiment of Kelm, Slabodka and the Torah itself.
Rav Moshe was an ish emes. He was all about the truth. Suffused with Toras emes, his measure was truth.
A kiruv activist once asked him how to sugarcoat something for people new to religion. He told the person that the only way to succeed is with the truth. Fiction won’t accomplish anything lasting. Nor will stupidity, he hastened to add, lovingly and with his famous twinkle.
To him, sheker and shtus were closely related.
He didn’t get sucked in by the sheker of this world, and neither should we. His search for the truth, combined with his genius, brought him to unique heights in limud and harbotzas Torah.
Rav Moshe taught that there are two levels of knowledge. Human intelligence occupies a defined spectrum and is governed by certain parameters that limit thought. A person whose thinking is in the physical realm of this world has a choice: either think the way humans do or be a fool. However, as much as an intelligent person thinks, he is confined and can never rise above the here and now of olam hazeh.
We can choose whether to remain within the limited realm and knowledge a person can attain using human abilities, or to raise ourselves to a higher level of da’as, knowledge achieved through Torah (and nevuah).
A person can raise himself above the boundaries that govern human thought. It is through bechirah that a person can choose to accept upon himself a much higher level of thought and knowledge, achievable through attaching oneself to the Torah, which is min haShomayim and thus limitless.
One who attaches himself to Torah min haShomayim is the freest person. As the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (6:2) says, there is no person freer than he who studies Torah.
Although Rav Moshe didn’t say this, perhaps we can. The Mishnah (ibid.) concludes, “Vechol mi she’oseik b’talmud Torah misaleh,” the person who studies Torah is raised. The person who connects himself to Torah raises himself to a different level and a different plane.
Rav Moshe was that person. He was on a different level. His seichel was on a different level. His knowledge seemed boundless, for it was not contained by the normative human parameters. His feet were planted in this world, but his da’as was heavenly.
Rav Moshe would relate the teaching of Rav Tzadok Hakohein that the Torah pays a unique compliment to Yosef Hatzaddik. The posuk says, “Vayehi Yosef yefeh to’ar v’yefeh mareh” (Bereishis 39:6). Yosef is the only man the Torah describes as a person with “yofi,” beauty.
Rav Moshe would present a point like this, let it hang in the air, and then say, “Mah katuv kan?”
When he said, “Mah katuv kan?” you knew that you were about to be brought into a new world. You were assured that the topic would be examined from every angle, the depths plumbed, the clear waters underneath exposed, and all the talmidim would find themselves refreshed.
And that was what he did here. He quoted Rav Tzadok and proceeded to explain “Mah katuv kan?”
He began by saying that to understand “yofi,” beauty, you must first analyze its opposite, “ki’ur,” ugliness. He said that ki’ur is a word that denotes a lack of clarity. As he was wont to do, Rav Moshe quoted a posuk and a Rashi. Yaakov Avinu told his sons, Shimon and Levi, “Achartem osi lehavisheini” (Bereishis 34:30). Rashi (ibid.) explains the word achartem as “mayim achurim,” dirty, muddied waters. Yaakov was telling his sons, “My mind was clear and you sullied it [by what you did to Shechem].”
Rav Moshe continued plumbing the clear waters of Torah. He said that in discussing the laws of cooking on Shabbos, Chazal use the term “mitztameik veyofeh lo” to describe a food that has been fully cooked yet improves as it remains close to a heat source.
He analyzed that the word “yofeh” refers to the precision of two different forces coming together to create a reality that had been concealed. Raw food and fire worked together to create an edible dish. The process is “yofeh.”
Ki’ur, ugliness, is brought about when the truth cannot be seen, when differing forces create ruin, and when concealed depths are obscured.
Yosef took his strengths and unified them, so that they were all working towards one goal: namely, to bring together the twelve brothers and unite them harmoniously around Yaakov Avinu.
The Maharal states that the fact that Yosef looked like Yaakov, and his life was patterned after his father’s and they shared similarities, indicates that the semblance went beyond the superficial and facial.
Chazal (Bava Metzia 84a) say, “Shufrei deYaakov avinu mei’ein shufrei d’Adam Harishon.” Yaakov was blessed with the “shufra,” the perfect beauty, of Adam Harishon, who possessed the ultimate tzuras ha’odom.
When Chazal teach that Yosef “looked” like Yaakov, they were revealing that not only was there a clear physical resemblance between the two, but also that Yosef shared this spiritual quality with Yaakov. It went far beyond the physical realm.
This, Rav Moshe concluded, is the yofi of Yosef Hatzaddik, a beauty that allows the truth to come together. This is why the Medrash (Tanchuma, Vayigash 10) compares Yosef to Tzion, the holiest city. The gematria of Tzion is Yosef. They are both the meeting point between physical and spiritual, where heaven and earth cross. (See also Afikei Mayim, Bais Hamikdosh, Chapter 15.)
And both are beautiful. They are both embodiments of what is meant by yofi.
And this yofi, the splendor and majesty of man, of a soul that circulated among us, a figure familiar in Yerushalayim of today, was the middah of a man who was a rebbi to many.
Rav Moshe showed us the dimensions of man. He demonstrated how a person can be elevated, regal and great. He was one with the Torah, showing us its expanse and breadth.
We saw him and we understood greatness. We listened to his shiurim and realized the heights man can reach. Through him, we understood the virtue of the Alter of Kelm, the precision of the Brisker Rov, the depth of Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler. He was a keili, a vehicle carrying the lessons of the greatest rabbeim and distilling them for a superficial generation.
I learned by him in Stamford, when he spent a few years in America. We talmidim had a zechus. We were enthralled by his shiurim, the vastness of his Torah, the prestige and chashivus he radiated. As young as we were, we grasped the truth of the statement, “Man malki rabbonon” (Gittin 62a).
His magnificence extended even to the way he spoke, his sweetness and warmth, his perfect diction, expression and vocabulary, and the way he articulated each word. Even the way he paused and let silence grab hold of the room was significant.
I’ll never forget how he said one particular posuk, and how much heart and sensitivity went into it.
It was at my vort, a simcha that took place a few years after my mother passed away at a young age. Our family would never be the same. Our mother took so much blessing, joy and love with her. A child without a mother, no matter the age, has a void in his heart that cannot be easily filled.
Rav Moshe got up to speak. He looked at me, he looked around, and then he quoted, in his distinct way of speaking, the words of the posuk, “Vayinochem Yitzchok acharei imo” (Bereishis 24:67). When Rivka entered Yitzchok Avinu’s tent, he was at last comforted from the loss of his mother. With Rivka’s arrival, the brachos of Sarah Imeinu – the candles that remained illuminated all week, the challah that warmed and nourished, and the cloud that hovered protectively – returned.
Rav Moshe didn’t elaborate, because he didn’t have to. He was bentching me that with the return of brocha, my life would once again be complete. I never forgot his warm words and generous wishes. Every year, when this parsha returns, I contemplate the moment referred to by the posuk.
He knew what was in my heart. He gave expression to the subtle thoughts running through my soul. He understood.
That was a moment that encapsulates Rav Moshe – so much heart, so much empathy, so much friendship, through Torah. He only had to recite the words and we were able to appreciate the sweetness that lies underneath each one.
He had the ability to open vistas. His shiurim were deep, clear and beautiful, and when he was done, it all made perfect sense and left you enriched. He always left you in awe and wanting more.
You looked at him and imagined the greatness of those whose Torah he shared – the Gaon and the Maharal and the Alter of Kelm – and you opened your mouth wide, as he laid out their concepts before you, k’shulchan aruch, and then fed to you these lofty ideas with a silver spoon.
Vezos haTorah asher som Moshe lifnei Bnei Yisroel.
He was so elevated, so refined, yet so approachable. He didn’t only know how to talk to us. He also knew how to listen.
At the levaya, Rav Moshe’s son spoke of his father’s ability to listen to and identify with the downtrodden. “Abba,” he cried out, “you were the lowest of all, the biggest shafel. You got down to feel with every broken person you met.”
Because he was able to make himself appear to be the lowest, because he was able to bring himself to that level to impart Torah wisdom and life lessons to others, he was, in reality, the highest. He was the greatest. He could make himself appear low, but his brain and soul flew in the Heavens. He seemed regular, but he wasn’t. He was the embodiment of yofi, combining heaven and earth.
Just as Rav Moshe perceived the depth of a Rambam or a Ramban where others only saw black letters, so was he with people.
He would look at me with his gentle, wise eyes and ask, “Peeny, vos machst du?” And by the way he asked, I knew that there was no reason to answer, because he already knew.
Throughout the years, whenever I had the pleasure to meet him, it was always the same greeting, the same “Peeny,” the same ability to load that one word with so much empathy and understanding. When he took my hand and held it an extra moment, and looked at me with a penetrating and meaningful look, I felt that there was at least one person in the world who understood me.
Someone once asked me if I minded that he still greeted me as if I was still the young bochur he had taught in Stamford. “No,” I replied. “He still sees me as that wide-eyed, eager bochur whose mind and heart he filled. He still views me the same way.”
I know that I will never hear that “Peeny” again and it saddens me. It is so much harder to hold on to who we really are if those who reminded us are gone.
Before he would deliver a shiur, he would look around. His expression would shift as he seemed to rise higher before our eyes, entering a sacred world.
You walked out of Rav Moshe’s shiur with a new appreciation of the vastness, depth and expanse of Torah. And you walked out of his shiur and felt like shouting out Birchos HaTorah all over again, because it was a new Torah, and it embraced you and you embraced it.
Once, during a Shavuos shmuess, Rav Moshe began to describe how Torah ought to cause not just man’s soul to rejoice, but even his body. He described the pleasure and delight of Torah and the ideal of being able to feel that enjoyment as if enjoying a good meal. He then cried out, “Men darf es untappen mit di hent. You have to be able to touch it.” He moved his hands up and down, as if grasping it. His audience of American yeshiva bochurim felt themselves being transported to a world where they, too, could touch the timeless truth of Torah and experience it as he did.
He had that ability.
Rav Moshe Mordechai Chodosh, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon in Yerushalayim, was in Monsey one year on Shabbos Chazon. As I walked with him, he told me of the time that Rav Moshe visited the Ohr Elchonon branch in the city of Tiverya.
Rav Moshe spoke to the bochurim in the yeshiva and was in a state of ecstasy. He quoted the Gemara in Rosh Hashanah (31a-b) which states that the last sitting of the Great Sanhedrin comprised of 71 members was in Tiverya. Rav Yochanan adds that the geulah will begin from Tiverya.
Rav Moshe explained that the Gemara (ibid.) states that Tiverya was “amukah mikulom.” Rashi says that the people of Tiverya were on the lowest level of the ten places the Sanhedrin exiled to. When the Sanhedrin ended up there, the Jews of the Holy Land had hit rock-bottom.
When the time of the geulah will arrive, the rebuilding process will begin there. The redemption will start at the lowest point in Eretz Yisroel and infuse it with kedusha as the land is prepared for the ultimate salvation.
Rav Moshe told the bochurim that by returning Torah to the forsaken city of Tiverya, they were contributing to the geulah of Klal Yisroel. For the first time in hundreds of years, Torah pulsates in Tiverya. Witnessing such a rebirth of Torah in the forsaken city brought Rav Moshe to a state of elation.
The Rambam in Hilchos Taanis writes: “A great city by the name of Beitar was captured. Inside it were many tens of thousands of Jewish people. They had a great king whom all of Yisroel and the rabbis believed was the king Moshiach. He fell into the hands of the gentiles and they were all killed. It was a great tragedy, as great as the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh.”
Rav Moshe explained that the tragedy was that their king, Bar Kochva, who could have been Moshiach, was killed. What could have been a period of redemption instead became one of destruction. Through their sins, an era that could have returned the Jews to the state they awaited since the chet hameraglim turned into tragedy.
We are so close to the redemption that we can hear the footsteps of Moshiach. We suffer from the chevlei Moshiach. Before Moshiach’s arrival, the tumah of the world increases, as the Soton fights to prevent his arrival. When the world will assume the state that Hashem intended, the koach hatumah will wilt. Amaleik will cease to exist after the geulah. So, in the period leading up to Moshiach, tumah rises and becomes strengthened, as the forces of darkness endeavor to prevent the Jewish nation from reaching the levels that Hashem intended.
Rav Moshe was niftar in the days of yarda choshech le’olam, on Asarah B’Teves. Rav Moshe was the one who could lift the veil to allow us a glimpse of reality, beyond the murkiness and shadows.
And now it is dark. He is gone.
He taught that the period leading to the redemption is referred to as ikvesa deMeshicha because just as the heel of the foot, the “ukeiv,” is largely numb and cannot feel much, so too, in this time period, our souls feel numb. Rav Moshe would quote the Yerushalmi (quoted in Tosafos, Shabbos 31a) which states that a farmer is “maamin bechayei olamim vezoreia.” He “believes in the Sustainer of world and plants a seed in the hard, dry ground.”
Rav Moshe would explain that when a seed is planted, it must first decompose and break down, unseen and nearly forgotten, before it is able to bring forth a living tree able to bear fruit. The same is with our nation. Hakadosh Boruch Hu is matzmiach yeshua, allowing Am Yisroel to grow from a broken seed.
Yarda choshech le’olam. Nistemu eineihem shel Yisroel. Let us hope that this is the darkness before dawn and that the seed that is our people is about to burst forth.
We must strengthen ourselves and seek to raise the levels of kedusha in this world so that it can overcome the kochos hatumah and permit Moshiach to reveal himself. It is plainly evident that tumah is spreading. It has a foothold everywhere. Many are entrapped in its clutches. The only way to fight back is through ameilus in Torah and maasim tovim. As the posuk states, “Tzion bemishpot tipodeh veshoveha betzedakah.” If we engage in righteousness and charity, we strengthen kedusha in the world and weaken the koach hatumah. When tumah is in its death throes, Moshiach can reveal himself and bring about the geulah.
If we remember the Torah Rav Moshe taught us, if we study the Torah of the leading masters and study their seforim, if we learn as if there is nothing else of any importance in this world, if we carry ourselves the way Rav Moshe did, if we treat others the way he did, if we raise our level and the level of those around us, we help bring light to the world. Light that chases away the darkness. Light that blinds the kochos hatumah and helps lead to the day when the world will be filled with that great light.
We will then merit “Ohr chodosh al Tzion to’ir,” the day when Moshiach ben Yosef is empowered with the strength and “yofi” of Yosef and allows Tzion to once again excel with its “yofi.” Moshiach ben Yosef will bring the world to a state of “yofi,” allowing the revelation of Moshiach ben Dovid. His arrival will bring with it the Bais Hamikdosh Hashlishi that will return Tzion to its state of “Tzion hametzuyenes” and “yofi,” as it connects elyonim and tachtonim.
May we merit that day speedily.