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Beit Midrash Series The Life of Tzaddikim

Longing for our Rav

HaRav Avraham Shapira, the Torah giant who led the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva for over two decades and served as Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, was known fondly by generations of students and by all those who came to seek his Halachic rulings, wisdom and counsel as "Reb Avrom." His genius in Torah was matched by his warm, compassionate personality and his unforgettable prayers on the High Holy Days. A student shares some recollections.
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Nightfall follows Yom Kippur in the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva. Kiddush Levana (the blessing celebrating the New Moon, which is traditionally said immediately after the Yom Kippur prayers). We approach Reb Avrom to get another sweet, cheerful smile and the blessing "g'mar tov ("a good conclusion") before departing for bein-hazmanim (the Succot recess), to Succah-building and acquiring the Arba'at Haminim (the "four species" of the Lulav). During the entire journey, the prayers of the holy day echoed in my head, especially the roars which emanated from the depths of the heart and that could break into every heart, which were the prayers of our Rav as he led the congregation. The Rav, who was then in his eighties, would lead the Mussaf and Neilah prayers, his roaring voice booming over those of the hundreds of students of the Yeshiva. Perhaps there are places where the prayers are more beautiful in the musical sense, but the prayers in the Yeshiva with Reb Avrom would penetrate into the very essence of your being. Still riding home from the Yeshiva, I closed my eyes and saw Reb Avrom again, his face blazing like a flaming torch, his head draped in the Tallit (prayer shawl), crying out at the commencement of the holy day, "Before whom are you purifying yourselves and who is it that purifies you," "Before G-d you shall be purified!" Then I was a young lad, and I didn't know that, decades later, every time we approached the High Holy Days, Reb Avrom's image would appear before me and I would again hear his roars and cries. A holy Jew was in our midst, and even what we did recognize of his greatness was the tip of the iceberg, and we didn't know, and didn't understand its magnitude and far reaches.
Simchat Torah, hundreds of Yeshiva students dancing with Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls). I don't remember why, but I was feeling a little down and wasn't dancing. And from across the big study hall, in the midst of hundreds of students, Reb Avrom, the elderly Rosh Yeshiva, the Rav of thousands of students, noticed one young student who wasn't dancing, his face perhaps betraying some sadness. Reb Avrom crossed the study hall and I was still unaware-the thought hadn't even crossed my mind-that he was doing so on account of me. He approached me with an illuminating countenance, asked how I am, and inquired, why am I not dancing? It is a mitzvah to always be happy, and certainly today! He didn't suffice with that; he took my hand like a good father, led me into the circle of dancers and danced with me, still gripping my hand. I don't remember why I was a bit sad before that, but I do remember that from that moment onwards, I was filled with tremendous simcha (rejoicing). I didn't understand then, and even more so I don't understand today, how did he see? How did he notice that out of the hundreds of students circling and dancing, that there is one young student in a far-off corner of the study hall, not dancing? And when he noticed, he didn't send someone else to call him, but went himself to raise his spirits. This is not just the greatness of a Torah intellect; this is the greatness of a Torah personality.
Years have passed, and in order that my students should taste something of that same atmosphere, something of that special personality, we adopted a practice every year, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, of taking the 12th-graders to Reb Avrom. Reb Avrom, who was already in his nineties, gave his full attention to the young students, answered their questions, and emphasized again and again, each end every year, the same thing he used to say to us when we were students: "Not to be beinoni (mediocre)!" He would say this with special emphasis, stressing the first syllable of the word beinoni and in a special intonation, "the main thing is not to be BEIN oni!" And also, "the world is waiting for you; the angels of the Torah are waiting for you." With his beaming countenance, humor and stories we would part from him. And each student remained accompanied by Reb Avrom's guidance as well as a sense of happiness, and the internal resolution, each one according to his level, to work harder and to make a greater effort this New Year to strive higher in serving G-d, in character refinement and in learning.
May his merit protect us.
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