Memories of a Great Torah Sage: Rav Avraham Shapira

To his students, Rav Shapira zts"l seemed a very angel of G-d. Erev Sukkot is the fourth yahrzeit of the late Chief Rabbi, head of Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva and larger-than-life leader of religious Zionism.

Rabbi Avraham Yisrael Sylvetsky,

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צילום: ערוץ 7

(Translated from the October 12th edition of the Hebrew Torah weekly, M'at Min Haor)

Minutes after delivering a challenging lecture filled with original insights on the 18th century advanced Halakhic text “Ksot Hachoshen” in his sparsely furnished home, the face of Rav Avraham Elkana Shapira, zts”l glowed with an inner light as we, his students, eagerly surrounded our beloved teacher for a few minutes of Torah talk. 

Vividly, the Rav spoke of the great Torah sages of generations past, of how they served G-d, elucidating on their holy way of life.

We, who drank his every word thirstily, found ourselves accompanying him to a realm above the constraints of time and place. 

Suddenly, we felt as though we were seeing the dignified figures of  Rabbi Shmuel Salant and the Maharil Diskin in the old Yishuv of Jerusalem, we were students of Rabbi Yitschak Elchanan Spector in Kovno and Rabbi Eizel Charif in Slonim, Lithuania.

Rav Shapira seemed to feel the greatness of the previous generations of Torah scholars in a palpable way, revering the dedicated transmitters of Torah whom he brought to life before our wondering eyes. 

How like them he was! To us he seemed to be a very angel of G-d.

Once, in the midst of an exposition on the topic of the '36 Unrevealed Righteous Men' who are present in each generation and of the Maharal of Prague’s brother who merited the appearance of Elijah the Prophet, Rabbi Shapira, with a hint of a smile in his twinkling eyes, told the tale of a group of Hassidim who found the courage to ask their rabbi the following question:

“How can it be that our Hassidic leader (called an Admor, ed.) is not one of the 36 hidden righteous men? He surely cannot be one of them as he is not hidden, all of us know him, his good deeds and his righteousness—after all, we are all his followers.”

“Ah”, said the Admor to his discomfited hassidim: “And you think that you really know me? Perhaps you know as much as the area of the tip of my nose, but no more than that…”

Rav Shapira told this tale jokingly, as he often did, his sense of humor and razor sharp intellect leaving the listener to deduce for himself what message about living a life of service to G-d the stories were intended to impart. 

Every one present felt that the Rav’s words were meant just for him, that no matter how he tried to emulate and follow the ways of Rav Shapira, he still remained on the outer edge, unable to reach deeper aspects of the rich inner life of his beloved Rav.

When he was a young Yerushalmi [Jerusalemite,ed.], known to all as a  Torah genius, an iluy, Rav Shapira was highly respected by the venerable Torah leaders of his time. He soon became one of them, assuming the leadership of the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva, disseminating Torah to thousands and bearing the yoke of Torah and Eretz Yisrael.

He was known to all for his brilliance and incisiveness as well as for his pious deeds, but even then, the innermost depths of his soul remained hidden from those around him.

As the Chief Rabbi of Israel and head of its Rabbinic Courts, known to be proficient in all aspects of Torah knowledge, he was destined to assume the challenging leadership of those who guarded Eretz Yisrael as well. Humble and unassuming, he avoided honor and accolades, yet they came his way of themselves.

His modest bearing aptly matched Chazal’s conditions for a Torah Sage: “If a Rav resembles an angel of heaven, learn Torah from him”, they said.

Why an angel? An angel has no self-interest, Rav Shapira once explained, no personal stakes and ambitions,he is totally immersed in his mission. 

That trait is what makes a Rav worthy of being a tramsmitter of true Torah. A Rav who resembles an angel is able to touch all his students, from the brilliant ones who are capable of separating the deeper message from its outer, disposable wrappings to the students who are but capable of accepting the entire message as a whole. (Rambam chap 4, the Laws of Torah Study, para. 5.)

A Rav must resemble an angel not only so that he teaches exactly what has been transmitted to him, but because transmitting Torah is not a technical act of information giving, but of re-experiencing the receiving of Torah from on high. As Avot Derabbi Natan says (chap 6): "Sit before a Torah scholar and accept every word he utters in fear and trembling the way your forefathers trembled at Mount Sinai."

When a Rav resembles an angel due to his humbleness and modesty, when he sees his mission and not himself, then there is a direct, pure line to the Torah transmitted at Mount Sinai.

It was on the first night of Passover, in our Rav and teacher’s last years, when he was a guest at a Jerusalem hotel, that I got a rare glimpse past the outer layers of his character.   

Rav Shapira recited the festival evening service, as was his wont, with great kavana and much joy. I suddenly noticed that he had completed the prayers, but that his lips were still moving and he was continuing to sway to and fro. The congregation did not realize that something was amiss, to them it looked as though he was still saying the silent Amidah because his face was close to the eastern wall and his body was swaying with intensity.

I, however, was right next to him, and was familiar with his davening, so I could tell that he had finished praying. He continued moving his lips without saying anything, until the young rabbi of the hotel synagogue, ended his own prayer with the traditional backward steps.  That is when Rav Shapira took the same steps and the cantor, seeing that the famous rabbi had finished, began festively singing the Hallel prayer.

After the service was ended, I asked Rav Shapira if I saw what I thought I saw. He was surprised that I had noticed and answered: "Of course that is what happened. That is how I behave whenever I am in a shul with its own rabbi, to make sure that the cantor does not begin singing when I finish praying and  humiliate the practicing rabbi by not waiting for him to complete his prayers."

Rav Shapira’s sensitivity towards this young rabbi's feelings was astounding. More astounding was the fact that no one would ever have known of his sensitivity and consideration had I not noticed his behavior, and he wanted it that way.

A small glimpse of the holy way of life of my Rav and teacher, mori verabbi, was revealed that day, only to make me realize how much of the holy inner being of this humble angel of God was hidden from us all.