"One, one and one, one and two . . . one and seven . . . . The Kohens and the people standing in the Temple courtyard, when they heard the honorable and awesome name [of God] pronounced by the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) in sanctity and purity . . . " (From the Yom Kippur liturgy).
We can still hear the voice of our beloved mentor, our crown and glory, the splendor of Israel, Rabbi Avraham Elkana Kahana Shapira, zt"l, as he led the Yom Kippur prayer service each year at Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav. Those of us who heard him felt as if we were actually standing by the Kohen Gadol in the Holy Temple. We knew with certainty that not only was he leading us, he was leading the entire people of Israel. Responsibility and concern for the entire Jewish people permeated Rabbi Avraham Shapira's prayers and filled his entire personality.
This past Elul I visited Rav Avrum (as he was affectionately called by his students) in his home. During my visit he said to me: "I want you to know that I am getting old, from day to day my strength leaves me. Does this appear strange to you? Are you surprised by this? Remember, even Abraham, the spiritual giant that he was, became old, as it is written, 'Abraham became old and his days grew short.' A person must recognize his insignificance before the Creator."
The heart still refuses to accept the fact that Rav Avrum is no longer with us in this world. Rav Avrum, who was so full of life, so full of joy, so full of light, the light of Torah and the light of sanctity, so full of wisdom and acumen. Rav Avrum and his incredible eyes are no longer with us, the eyes of the generation, eyes that radiated divine wisdom and goodness. Could it be?
News of his death came to us in the midst of the Sukkot Festival, and it was as if we had received the announcement of Bar Kappara regarding the death of Rabbenu Yehuda HaNasi (Ketubot 104): "The angels and the mortals have taken hold of the holy ark. The angels overpowered the mortals and the holy ark has been captured." In the Jerusalem Talmud (Kilayim 9): "The angels and the mortals have taken hold of the Tablets of the Covenant. The angels overpowered the mortals and the Tablets have been captured."
Of the two, it would appear that the Jerusalem Talmud possesses the more penetrating view. R' Yehudah was not merely a vessel full of Torah, a "Holy Ark," he was the Torah itself - the Tablets - and "the Tablets are the work of God, and the script is the script of God engraved upon the Tablets." This was also true of Rav Avrum. He was entirely Torah. The angels sought to take this great light to the heavenly spheres while those below endeavored to keep him here with us.
The Rishon LeTzion, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, told me that a person who sees Rav Avrum must recite the benediction "Blessed is He who has given of His wisdom to those who revere Him." He explained that this blessing relates to Rav Avrum not merely because of his broad Torah knowledge, but primarily due to the fact that, by virtue of his enormous diligence and labor, his wisdom has become one with his Torah knowledge. The two are one and the same.
More than thirty years ago I had the privilege of visiting the brilliant R' Chaim Yaakov Levin, of blessed memory. He had just returned to Israel after a long stay in the United States and had been appointed Cheif Rabbi of Pardes Hannah. When I told him that I was studying at the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva he asked me who was giving the shiur klali (general lesson given regularly before the entire student body). I told him that two rabbis delivered the lesson. When I mentioned Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli he immediately replied, "Oh, Rabbi Shaul, I remember him from the days of R' Kook."
Then I mentioned Rav Avrum. He said that he did not remember Rabbi Avraham Shapira. Then, suddenly, he got up, went over to the bookcase, and took out a book of responsa called "Zecher Yitzchak." "This book," he said, "was edited and published by Avraham Elkana Kahana Shapira. Is this who you are referring to? At the back of the book there is an essay by the editor that possesses depth of Torah reminiscent of generations gone by. I can tell you with complete certainty that there is no such depth of Torah in our generation.
While still relatively young, Rav Avrum was engaged in Torah discussions with the leading Torah authorities of his day, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer (author of "Even HaEzel" on the Rambam), the brilliant Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, the Chazon Ish, and others. After the death of the Chazon Ish, i.e., more than fifty years ago, the Tchebeiner Gaon (Rabbi Dov Berish Weidenfeld), author of "Dovev Meisharim," said, "In my opinion, Rav Avrum will be the leading Torah authority of the next generation."
In the year 5742 (1982), after the death of our beloved mentor, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook, Rav Avrum was appointed Rosh Yeshiva (dean) of the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva and thus became the spiritual leader of the entire religious Zionist public, a public great in both quantity and quality, desciples of Rabbi Kook who strive to build the State of Israel upon the faith of Israel. About a year later he was chosen as Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel and began to bear the great yoke of Torah responsibility for the entire generation on a practical level.
Because he was such a Torah giant and because he was the heir of our beloved mentor Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, Rabbi Avraham Shapira became the guide and leader of the entire religious Zionist public. He would gather leading rabbis in his home for consultation and decision making on public issues.
Exactly three years ago, on 29 Tishrei 5765 (2005), he issued a public statement to the effect that the expulsion of Jews from their homes in the land of Israel in order to transfer territory to non-Jews is absolutely forbidden by the Torah, just like the desecration of the Sabbath and the prohibition against eating carcasses. He added that it is forbidden for Jewish soldiers to take part in such an action or even assist in any manner. Later he publicized an explicit legal ruling on this matter.
During that same period I happened one day to be at the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva. I saw a bunch of students gathered around Rav Avrum, so I went to see what it was all about. The students had handed the rabbi a copy of a weekly Torah sheet that contained a so-called halachic ruling contrary to his own on the matter of uprooting and transferring Jews. Rav Avrum read what was written and said "There is not a single word of Torah here." In other words, it contained no more than unfounded views. He tore up the sheet, said that it was forbidden to publicize it, and headed towards the exit.
I felt that the rabbi ought to be encouraged and supported, so I accosted him and said, "How fortunate we are to have you as our rabbi. We are indebted to the Almighty God, Author of history, for planting you amongst us."
Then I added, "You, rabbi, in our generation, are like Moses in his." When I said these words, Rav Avrum looked up at me and said, "Who gave you the right to say such a thing?" "It's not me who says this," I replied, "its Rashi in his commentary to the Talmud (see Shabbat 101)." "In reference to whom was this said?" Rav Avrum asked. "R' Safra says it to Rava," I answered. "Yes," he said vigorously, "R' Safra says it to Rava, but not of me or of you!" and with this Rav Avrum turned and went on his way.
This is a perfect example of the great sense of responsibility felt by Rav Avrum as the Torah authority of the generation. At the same time, he possessed tremendous humility, and he refused to hear himself excessively praised.
The entire generation has been orphaned.
Rav Avrum cannot be replaced.