For Rav Moshe every moment of life was precious; he certainly wasn’t the type to engage in nostalgia. So it came as a surprise when he shared a 30-year-old memory as I drove him home from shiur.
“Do you remember when Yehoshua was Andy? And Gershon was Johnny? And Yerachmiel was Robbie? And Elazar was Eliot? And you [Menachem] were Manny?
He paused and then delivered his punch line in Israeli-accented English.
“Those were the good old days.”
Indeed they were. Rav Moshe had a special fondness for the Yeshivas Mishkan HaTorah chevreh he taught in the early 1980s. He was less well known then, and he chose to give us his undivided warmth, guidance, and attention. He was there for us as we navigated shidduchim, and he was still there for us a generation later as we married off our own children.
It came as no surprise that Rav Moshe was particularly heartbroken when his beloved talmid Reb Gershon Zeffren was diagnosed with a brain tumor in April 2008 at the age of 46. Compounding the pain was that Reb Gershon was so easy to love. As a rebbi in St. Louis for over 20 years, he was the one to whom his students would pour out their hearts. He had a terrific sense of humor. He was wise and insightful yet fun, chilled, and accepting.
After four years of battling the malach hamaves, Reb Gershon returned his pure soul to his Creator. Shortly before his petirah, Rav Moshe agreed to talk to him through Skype. To my knowledge it was the only time he ever had an online conversation. The conversation was recorded and I have attempted to translate it into English (with light editing).
Important note: As with everything I write from what I gleaned from the Torah of my rebbi, this piece is based on my understanding and written in my style, and most certainly does not convey the full depths of what he wanted to teach on the subject. I would also like to thank the family of Rav Moshe Shapira for approving the dissemination of his Torah in this format.
Condensed translation of Rav Moshe’s skype conversation with Reb Gershon Zeffren z”l
Shalom aleichem, Gershon, Hashem ya’azor!
The pasuk in Koheles [9:40] says, “Ki mi asher yechubar el kol hachayim yeish bitachon — for he who is attached to the true essence of life has hope.” Hashem is constantly mashpia chesed, spreading kindness to all of creation. You have to believe with total conviction that HaKadosh Baruch Hu constantly takes care of us and only wants that which is truly best for us. He does this with a devotion that is far beyond human comprehension.
At every moment, Hashem renews creation. The whole world exists only because Hashem wants it to exist at that moment. And when the next moment comes the whole world exists once again only because Hashem has willed that new moment to exist. Nobody lives merely because they were alive a moment before. Similarly, all of creation does not exist only because it existed a moment before. Each moment is a new and unique creation.
If we can truly believe and comprehend this concept, then we can know with clarity that in the next moment of our lives Hashem can give us a hashpa’ah chadashah shel chayim, a new lease on life, disconnected to anything that has happened to us until now. This is the deeper meaning of [what we say in davening in the blessing yotzeir hame’oros before Krias Shema], “Mechadeish b’tuvo b’chol yom tamid maaseh Bereishis” — that Hashem in His goodness renews daily, perpetually, the work of creation.
[At this point Rav Moshe speaks to Mrs. Zeffren to verify that she and her husband had understood his words.]
We are constantly davening for you that Hashem should renew your life and be mashpia chayim miMekor hachayim, give life from the Source of life, to you and your family. Hashem should help you and your wife enjoy extended nachas from all of your children, raising them together successfully. You should be together at their weddings, and you should enjoy your grandchildren.
Remember that Hashem is gomel chasadim tovim. Hashem is rofei cholei amo Yisrael. Hashem is Borei refu’os and Oseh chadashos. Only HaKadosh Baruch Hu can give you unlimited chesed and nobody can take it away from you.
[At this point, Rav Moshe continued with effusive brachos and concludes with a pasuk in Tehillim (103:17), "Hashem’s chesed to those who fear Him is forever and ever, and His righteousness continues to his children and grandchildren.” Reb Gershon responded with a weak "Amen!”]
Kol tuv, with Hashem’s help we will meet, perhaps even here in Yerushalayim.
Kol tuv, may the Geulah come quickly for you and your family, kol tuv selah.
The Light Inside the Sun
For a deeper understanding of Rav Moshe’s reference to the words “Mechadeish b’tuvo b’chol yom tamid maaseh Bereishis” and the concept of the unique creation of each moment in time, I would like to relate an insight that Rav Moshe shared.
The insight begins with a story. Rav Dessler and the Brisker Rav were probably the most important influences in Rav Moshe’s formative years. Rav Moshe had the zechus to live in Rav Dessler’s home when he learned in Ponevezh Yeshivah in Bnei Brak as a teenager. In 1952, Rav Dessler lost his wife, and Rav Moshe worked hard to make sure the shivah home was running smoothly. In Rav Moshe’s words, “I helped with siddur hasafsalim — setting up the benches.” When Rav Dessler got up from shivah, he wanted to “pay” Rav Moshe for his efforts with the only meaningful currency that has true worth — a devar Torah!
After it appears in tefillah, the phrase “Mechadeish b’tuvo b’chol yom tamid maaseh Bereishis” is followed by the scriptural source, “Ka’amur, l’Oseh orim gedolim, ki l’olam chasdo — As it is said, [giv[give thanks]the One Who makes the great luminaries [the[the sun and the moon]r His kindness endures forever” (Tehillim 136:7).
Rav Dessler asked a powerful question. All the gratefulness in that perek of Tehillim celebrates events that happened in the past and were never repeated. “Who smote Egypt through their firstborn, Who divided the Yam Suf,” and so on. It follows that “Who makes the great luminaries” is referring to that moment in Creation when Hashem created the sun and the moon. So how, then, does that pasuk reveal that Hashem is Mechadeish b’chol yom tamid, that He renews creation every day?
Rav Dessler explained that to read the verse correctly, the focus must be on the second half of the pasuk. How do we know that Hashem renews creation every day? Ki l’olam chasdo — for His kindness endures forever. Hashem had originally intended to run His world based on middas hadin, strict justice. Had He done so, the world would have returned to nothingness a long time ago. But through His middas harachamim, loving mercy, Hashem allows the momentum unleashed by the creation of the sun and the moon to continue each day.
Rav Moshe explained his rebbi’s words with a deeper layer of understanding.
The recreation of the world that we experience daily is not physical. We all know that when we stand on a beach in California and watch the hazy sun dip into the Pacific Ocean, that same sun will soon be seen in Australia. When we talk about the sun that vanishes at night and is recreated in the morning, we are referring to the shemesh hapenimi, the “inner sun” that contains the ohr haganuz, the hidden light of creation. The holy Zohar reveals that the hidden light was actually hidden deep inside the physical sun that we see shining in the sky, something beyond our comprehension. It is due to the setting of this inner sun that we sense not just physical darkness but also spiritual darkness. And when the sun rises, the world is spiritually renewed, with new opportunities for reaching spiritual heights.
It also explains why yotzeir hame’oros contains “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh” and “Baruch kevod Hashem mimkomo,” the shirah that the angels sing every morning at the creation of a new day as they celebrate the daily renewal of the ohr haganuz and the spiritual opportunities that the new day heralds. The Tur (Orach Chayim 59) notes that this concept is highlighted in minhag Ashkenaz, which adds the phrase, “Ohr chadash al Tziyon ta’ir — may You shine a new light on Zion,” beseeching the Almighty to bring the Redemption, which will finally allow us access to the hidden light.
The Burning Mansion
In his magnum opus Nefesh HaChaim (1:2), Rav Chaim Volozhin gives a different understanding of the phrase “Mechadeish b’tuvo b’chol yom tamid maaseh Bereishis.” He explains that the word tamid (perpetually) is not referring to the daily spiritual renewal of creation, but to the physical renewal of creation that happens every moment, adding another layer of depth into our understanding of how Hashem runs the world the physical world that we see gives an illusion of continuity, but in reality it is continuously being destroyed and renewed. That is the true nature of teva, the physical world that we observe.
Interestingly, that is exactly what Avraham Avinu observed when he discovered the Creator. In the iconic words of the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 39:1) he saw a birah dolekes, a burning mansion. At first glance, a burning candle seems static, as unmoving as any other physical object. In reality what we see is an illusion. The flame implodes and the wick draws new fuel to create a new flame. Every moment the “was” ceases to exist, and something new takes its place. With every blink of the eye we see a new flame that is unique, untainted, and pristine.
This is what Avraham correctly saw in all of creation. The appearance of “time” as a continuum is a deception. Every moment is a new beginning. At each second, the past is gone forever. The Master of the mansion is in control, perpetually extinguishing and recreating.
The two understandings of tamid are different, yet they work in tandem. Every dawn brings new hope for a unique ruchniyusdig reality, one that is existing for the first time and that can allow anything to happen. Furthermore, the renewal of nature itself declares that every moment can unleash the proverbial unexpected salvation. “Afilu cherev chadah munach al tzavarecha al tisya’eish min harachamim — Do not despair from miracles, even when a sharp sword has descended on your neck.”
In the words of Rav Moshe, “If we can truly believe and comprehend this concept, then we can know with clarity that in the next moment of our lives Hashem can give us a hashpa’ah chadashah shel chayim, a new lease on life, disconnected to anything that has happened to us until now.”
The Keys to Life
Rav Moshe constantly reminded us of the limits of a medical prognosis. A doctor makes his predictions in a world where the sun is a never-ending constant and where fire is static. He is bound by the statistics of the past, which he then projects into the future.
In reality, every morning the sun announces a day that is truly new. On a ruchniyusdig level, a new a set of possibilities are opened, giving us a new obligation to daven Shacharis. We ask Hashem to unleash the ohr haganuz, which medical science calls miracles — but we call the rachamim of Hashem.
Of course we recognize that sometimes, for reasons beyond our understanding, Hashem’s rachamim may mean that He wants a person in the Higher Realms. Sometimes our tefillos will only be used to prolong life for a precious few months or to mitigate the suffering of our loved ones.
Nevertheless, the principle remains the same. Ultimately every moment can bring something new that the world has never seen. The salvation of Hashem is literally in a blink of an eye. The keys to life are not the domain of doctors; they are safely in Hashem’s Hands.
There is always hope.
Originally featured in Family First, Issue 627. Rabbi Menachem Nissel is a mechanech in Jerusalem and is the author of Rigshei Lev: Women and Tefillah. He is a talmid of Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l.