W as Rav Moshe the most important figure of the kiruv movement in recent years? At his passing many said so. He certainly had many talmidim (and talmidim of talmidim) in the field. With his unique brand of both fire and love he encouraged and guided them empowering them to be as effective as possible.
I’d like to share seven principles of kiruv that I either heard personally from Rav Moshe or that were shared with me by colleagues based on the advice Rav Moshe gave them. They’re based on my shallow understanding. Consistent with Rav Moshe’s sophisticated and nuanced pedagogy we can assume that he may have said things differently to other talmidim or that he could have changed the message for different scenarios.
I would like to thank the family of Rav Moshe Shapira for letting me disseminate his Torah in this format.
1. Slabodka Roots
The Alter of Slabodka’s encounter with Rav Yisrael Salanter was brief. Reb Yisrael father of the mussar movement had the ability to size up a person on the deepest level in just a few minutes. When the Alter asked what his avodah was in this world Reb Yisrael answered with the pasuk: “L’hachayos ruach shefalim u’lhachayos lev nidkaim — to revive the spirit of the meek and revive the hearts of the depressed” (Yeshayahu 57:15).
Based on this principle the Alter went on to build a generation of Torah leaders. In an era where Torah and its followers were downtrodden he gave his students a sense of dignity and indeed royalty. The concept of gadlus ha’adam the innate greatness of man was channeled into pride that we’re given the privilege of serving Hashem. To use the example of the Alter Shlomo Hamelech in Shir Hashirim [7:3] uses a metaphor of sugah bashoshanim to describe the Jewish People are protected from sin by a hedge of roses. Usually people avoid a hedge of roses because they’re afraid of being pricked by the thorns. A person who is mechubad will not climb over the fence because he cannot bring himself to destroy the beauty of the rose.
Rav Moshe felt strongly that this approach was more urgent than ever before. Never has there been such a lowly and depressed generation as ours. We need to build people up by showing them the grandeur of Torah. Why waste your time with trivialities? Why be attracted to a lowly culture? You’re better than that!
In his words “Don’t talk about muttar or assur. Talk about nivzeh and nechbad.” Don’t talk about what is permitted and forbidden. It is ineffective and may be harmful. Talk about what is cheapening and degrading versus what is illustrious honorable and elevating. For example speaking in an unrefined manner should be avoided not because it is forbidden rather because it is beneath your dignity.
Our generation is called Ikvesa D’Meshicha which literally means “the heels of Mashiach.” Rav Moshe explains that if the early generations are like the head of a person the last generations of history are compared to the sole of the foot. The sole is calloused and hardened it’s insensitive able to step on small stones without getting hurt. So too with our generation: It’s lethargic and not easily touched. There is however one way to bring the sole back to life.
A year earlier these young men knew nothing about Torah but once ignited their neshamos thirsted for more and more
Give it a tickle. A light brush on the sole and the entire body can burst into laughter.
Rav Moshe felt that the first step in front-line kiruv is to “tickle.” The information has to be attractive entertaining and relevant to the target audience. The medium can be humor or intellectual stimulation. Trips or shabbatonim. The goal is to bring people alive to the reality that there is a Big Picture in life.
That introductory step though should be kept to a minimum. The moment your clientele is ready bring them straight to the next step:
3. The Real Thing
At the first opportunity teach men Gemara. Preferably with Tosafos so that they can taste the genuine sweetness of lomdus. This is the healthiest form of kiruv and directly connects to building gadlus ha’adam.
Women should be shown the chochmah of Torah without Gemara. Topics that bring a person to emunah — such as the parshah of Matan Torah — should be taught in depth. (Further hadrachah on women’s kiruv is beyond the scope of this article).
Rav Moshe strongly felt that kiruv should only be done by authentic talmidei chachamim with proper hashkafos. Anyone less could cause damage. He once mentioned that when he goes for a haircut he’s subjected to whatever radio station the barber is playing. Occasionally he hears a kiruv lecture. Rav Moshe’s verdict? “If I was a teenager listening to this I would be totally turned off!”
The goal is always to make genuine bnei Torah. In answer to the famous question: “Is it better to nurture ten people who will be shomer Shabbos or invest one’s energies into one ben Torah?” Rav Moshe declared that without doubt one should build a ben Torah.
However if you have a number of students in front of you and some have more potential to become genuine talmidei chachamim than others you cannot pick favorites. Everyone should be helped along their road to teshuvah as far as possible.
4. Growth through Bechirah
Rav Moshe was contemptuous of any pushiness or tactics that smacked of brainwashing. We have to assume our audience is intelligent. Present ideas that challenge people to think for themselves. In his words give them bechirah livchor b’chayim the free choice to choose life.
This is especially important when advising about life choices. Everyone has unique talents and strengths but only the individual can find these within himself. Our job is to facilitate an individual’s path geared to his personal situation based on Torah values. We have to guide him to be absolutely honest with himself to prioritize what’s important and to learn what decisions should be done with emunah.
But the journey has to be his own.
It’s not surprising that Rav Moshe attracted the most brilliant minds to teshuvah. Reb Benny Lévy sat quietly on a side bench every week at our Friday morning shiur. When he suddenly passed away at the age of 58 Rav Moshe was devastated. We had no idea who he was. A leader of the May 1968 student revolt in Paris he was the greatest student of Jean-Paul Sartre a leading figure of 20th-century French philosophy and Marxism. His last years were spent as a beloved talmid of Rav Moshe.
Reb Mordechai “Pupik” Arnon was a legendary comedian and household name in Israel in the ’70s. When he asked Rav Moshe if he could join his shiur Rav Moshe had not heard of him. He asked if anyone could give him a recommendation. Reb Mordechai stuck his thumb in his mouth and imitating the voice of a seven-year-old said “Az Harav rotzeh she’ani avi petek mei’Ima? [Does the Rav want me to bring a note from Ima]?” The place erupted in laughter. Rav Moshe grinned and accepted him as a talmid.
When a student embarks on a journey to teshuvah extreme care must be taken to avoid alienating parents. Rav Eliyahu Ilani is the dean of Nefesh Yehudi an organization that was the brainchild of Rav Moshe. Nefesh Yehudi runs classes and organizes chavrusas providing Israeli students with a window into Judaism. They teach beginners Torah at an advanced level. Reb Eliyahu shared that on several occasions Rav Moshe personally spoke with parents to explain b’darkei noam the changes their child was making.
However there are red lines that cannot be crossed. Reb Eliyahu shared a story about how a Nefesh Yehudi graduate who was raised in a secular kibbutz invited everyone from his past to his wedding. When the kibbutz leadership found out that the wedding would have a mechitzah they declared a boycott on the wedding.
Rav Moshe swung into action. He told everyone to bring friends from other yeshivos to make it an unforgettable wedding. Rav Moshe stayed until the very end dancing without pause.
6. The Three Most Important Words in Kiruv
“Ein od milvado.”
Nothing exists except for Him. Hashem doesn’t need us to do kiruv He’s perfectly capable of bringing anyone back to teshuvah on His own. He gives us the zechus to play a part.
The second most important words in kiruv?
Don’t mess up what He is doing.
In practice this means that kiruv can never be done through compromising Torah values especially in the area of kedushah. Rav Moshe was particularly frustrated at the abuse of heter kiruv where a lenient psak was taken beyond the intent of the ruling especially in the leniency of coed kiruv where a delicate line must be walked.
“Sometimes I feel like closing the whole kiruv movement ” Rav Moshe once vented “when I see what it does to my avreichim.”
Another area that bothered him was chanufah flattery. Mekarvim would for example invite an irreligious donor to speak at a convention or allow him to determine how his money would be used in a way that compromised the Torah’s honor. When Rav Mordechai Becher and Rav Moshe Newman wrote Avosos Ahavah a work on the halachos of kiruv rechokim Rav Moshe would only give a haskamah if there was a chapter that dealt with the laws of chanufah.
One should never stop davening for the success of our students in kiruv (for sources see my sefer Rigshei Lev Chapter 10 first footnote).
Rav Moshe helped me write a short tefillah for fertility to be said at the end of the Shemoneh Esreh (included in my sefer p. 303). When I asked him to write one for mechanchim and mekarvim he told me that it was impossible. Everyone needs to formulate his own nusach based on his unique situation.
Interestingly when I asked Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky to write a nusach he basically gave me the same answer as Rav Moshe. We need to dig into our hearts to find the words for our own tefillah.
Menachem Nissel is a rebbe at Yeshivas Yishrei Lev and teaches in seminaries in Yerushalayim. He is the author of Rigshei Lev – Women & Tefilla and is the Senior Educator for NCSY. He is a talmid of Rav Moshe Shapira zt”l.
In Real Life: An Open Door
Rav Moshe saw the unusual success of the kiruv movement as part of the simanim of Ikvesa D’Meshicha the Messianic Era. He would say “The door is open. Anyone who goes into kiruv sees brachah something that we weren’t zocheh to see in previous generations.”
He’d refer to the classic Zohar analogy that galus is night. The darkest part of the night is just before the coming dawn. In that thick darkness small specks of light can be seen far off in the horizon heralding the coming dawn. These tiny rays of light are the source of the astonishing success of mekarvim.
The Talmud asks “What should one do to be saved from the birth pangs that precede the coming of Mashiach? One should involve oneself in Torah and chesed” (Sanhedrin 98b). There are two conceptions of Hashem’s creation of the world. The first is histakel b’Oraisa u’bara alma using the Torah as the blueprint. The second is olam chesed yibaneh through the building power of chesed. Rav Moshe explains (based on Succah 49b) that the combination of Torah and chesed is the engine of bringing Mashiach and that kiruv rechokim expresses that combination in its highest form.
Furthermore every moment that we are involved in kiruv we fulfill the mitzvah of “tzipiyah l’yeshuah ” awaiting Mashiach.
Rav Moshe lived and breathed the imminence of Mashiach. He constantly spoke about it. For his talmidim who had the ability to do kiruv it was expressed with a sense of desperate urgency.
Rav Eli Gewirtz is the founder and director of Partners in Torah an organization that provides phone or Skype chavrusas for beginners. When Reb Eli proudly told Rav Moshe that he had set up 5 000 chavrusas Rav Moshe wasn’t satisfied. “You need to set up 50 000 chavrusas ” he told him.
Recently Reb Eli was happy to tell me that he has passed the “Rav Moshe benchmark”: Partners in Torah now has over 60 000 chavrusas.
Rav Ahron Lopiansky rosh yeshivah of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington and veteran talmid of Rav Moshe shares a story he heard from a menahel of a Torah institution for Israelis living in Florida. It perfectly illustrates his rebbi’s passion for kiruv.
“When I was deciding whether to build my school Rav Moshe sat with me trying to persuade me to go to Florida. He ignored the clock and sat with me for a very long time. When I left Rav Moshe ran after me and confronted me.
“His eyes welled with tears. He said ‘Listen carefully yakiri. Every day another trainload of Israeli children living in America are heading straight for Auschwitz! If you can save just a few of them your place in Gan Eden will be so high afilu lo uchal l’hatzitz alecha I won’t be able to glimpse you even from afar.’
“And then he started to cry…”
In Real Life: A Special Place in His Heart
Okay I admit we were jealous.
For years we took for granted that Rav Moshe would speak at his home on the night of Shevii shel Pesach. Beyond the dazzling shiur it was a time of closeness with our rebbi bringing an elevated closure to the Festival of Freedom.
In his last years we lost that zechus. Rav Moshe spent Pesach at the Toras Chaim Yeshivah in Moscow. Leaving Yerushalayim for Yom Tov could not have been an easy decision for the rav and his rebbetzin. It was clear that he did so because Russia had a special place in his heart.
When one of the chevra asked Rav Moshe “Why do you abandon us for Pesach?” he answered “If you can find me another place where bochurim arrive having never heard of Yetzias Mitzrayim and a year later they’re asking on their own the questions of Rav Akiva Eiger maybe I’ll go there too! In Russia I feel I am keeping the mitzvah of v’higadeta l’vincha b’hiddur rav relating the story of the Exodus on the highest level.”
He once shared with us how deeply inspired he was one freezing day when the heating broke down in the yeshivah. In Russia “freezing” means freeeeezing! With deep emotion Rav Moshe described how the bochurim came to the beis medrash and simply wrapped themselves in blankets continuing to learn with tremendous hasmadah. He said it was a scene that belonged to a different era.
When Rav Aharon Leib Steinman asked him why he went to Russia for Pesach Rav Moshe answered “Toras Chaim iz der shtoltz fun Klal Yisrael. [Roughly translated — the talmidim of Toras Chaim are the cutting edge of Klal Yisrael.] The bochurim are baalei mesirus nefesh and therefore have extra siyata d’Shmaya. Their success is outstanding.”
He felt that 70 years of the Communist freezer were melting in front of his eyes. He described a young man making a siyum on a masechta. Six months earlier he had known nothing about Hashem Yiddishkeit or Torah. What was the occasion of the siyum? His grandfather’s bris!
Rav Moshe Lebel the rosh yeshivah of Toras Chaim describes how from the moment Rav Moshe arrived in the yeshivah until his return flight he would give shiurim or talk Torah with the students. At night he would retire to his room for his personal learning. The light was almost always on in his room. Rav Moshe didn’t care much for sleep.
His love and patience for the bochurim were palpable. A novice bochur stole the afikomen. He declared he would only return it if “Rav Shapira will learn with me b’chavrusa when I make it to Israel.” Nobody considered it unusual when Rav Moshe agreed. To be honest it was hard for the bochurim to process that they were in the presence of greatness.
When Rav Moshe spoke to the whole yeshivah he did so with an interpreter. On his last Shevii shel Pesach however he asked to speak without a translator. “I will speak neshamah language. Your neshamos will understand me.” Here is a synopsis of his final words to the bochurim:
“My children! You have such a zechus to be learning here. The Rishonim say ‘Ein baal haneis makir b’niso ’ the recipient of a miracle is not aware of what has happened to him. Your ancestors were wrenched away from Yiddishkeit by the cursed Bolsheviks. You are living in the land of Tsar Nikolai who declared war against Torah. He closed the Yeshivah of Volozhin. You are living in the city where Stalin reigned where religion and Judaism were subjected to 70 years of terror.
“Now look at you! You are in a holy yeshivah. You are sitting next to Shasim Rishonim and Acharonim. You are sanctifying the streets of Moscow with your holy Torah. You are bringing merit to the neshamos of your unfortunate zeides and bubbes. I envy you! You are shaking up the world!
“Ashreichem ashreichem!” (Originally featured in Family First Issue 569)