R av Moshe did not appreciate being asked to predict the future. He would respond to nudniks with comments like “I don’t know what will happen tomorrow! How do you expect me to know when Mashiach is coming?”

If we don’t know when Mashiach is coming can we at least know what the world will be like when he arrives? After all Rambam devotes the last two chapters of his Mishneh Torah to a vivid description of that era.

To answer this question Rav Moshe shared a critical distinction he heard from the Brisker Rav.

In Rambam’s portrayal of the Messianic Era he inserts the following quotation. “Lo yeida adam eich sheyiheyu ad sheyiheyu — A person will not know how it will be until it is” (Hilchos Melachim 12:2). We won’t know how it will happen until it actually happens.

The Brisker Rav explains this seemingly superfluous insertion by teaching us that the Mishneh Torah is normally learned on two levels: (a) Torah and (b) l’maaseh on a practical level. The Rambam is teaching us that the sugya of Mashiach is different. It can be studied at the level of Torah. It can be critically analyzed with the same methodology as studying shnayim ochzim b’tallis two people holding a tallis both claiming ownership. But only when Mashiach actually appears will we be able to relearn the sugya in practical terms.

Today we can learn the Torah of the Messianic Era. On a practical level however these concepts are like describing color to someone who has always been blind. We simply don’t possess the faculties that would allow us to understand and appreciate this different level of reality.

Rav Moshe gave an example. Rambam describes how after Mashiach comes he will fight the apocalyptic war that will end all wars. The enemies are Gog U’Magog. Rav Hai Gaon (quoted in Tur O.C. 490) reveals that the battle will take place in Tishrei. That’s why the haftarah of Shabbos Chol Hamoed Succos is Yechezkel’s description of that awesome battle. Midrash Talpios specifies that the battle will be fought on Hoshana Rabbah.

Will Mashiach’s confrontation with Gog U’Magog actually happen on Hoshana Rabbah? We won’t know until it happens. Who exactly is Gog? What is Magog? A person or coalition of nations? Is Gog a scary general? How will he assume power? Will the Americans call him George? Will he prefer chocolate fudge brownie or strawberry cheesecake?

All of these questions are by definition irrelevant. The curious will have to be patient until the events unfold. What we know with clarity is that if we want to understand this dramatic chapter in history and how we can relate to it we have an address:

The enigmatic avodah of Hoshana Rabbah.

Please note: The following concepts are based on my understanding of the ideas my rebbi shared. I may have misunderstood them and they almost certainly do not convey the full depths of what he wanted to teach. I’d like to thank the family of Rav Moshe Shapira for approving the dissemination of his Torah in this format.

War Against Hashem

Rav Moshe once heard Rav Elya Lopian relate an extraordinary memory. The place was London the year 1939. Rav Elchonon Wasserman told Rav Elya that the Chofetz Chaim had predicted that The Great War would be the first of three wars. The Chofetz Chaim said that around 25 years later a war would break out that would make World War I look like child’s play. He concluded that we don’t know when the third war will happen.

Our holy seforim mention that this final war will last shalosh shaos three hours which we allude to on Hoshana Rabbah when we cry out Hosha na! Shalosh shaos hosha na!

The three-hour war will take place in Yerushalayim and is the war of Gog U’Magog. Once again the length of the war and its location are not necessarily literal (apologies to all the doom-and-gloom nuclear holocaust predictors) but they do tell us that the war will not follow the pattern of regular wars.

The Midrash Tehillim (Perek 2) says that Gog U’Magog proclaim that they will avoid the mistakes of their evil predecessors. What is their solution? To wage war neged Hashem v’neged Meshicho (Tehillim 2:2). “It’s not enough to fight Mashiach ” they declare. “For evil to prevail we must fight against Hashem Himself!”

It goes without saying that this is a bad move. Three hours is all it takes. The demise of Gog U’Magog cleanses the world of evil and frees Mashiach to bring the world to its perfection.

But where does this leave us? What is our role in the conflict to end all conflicts? The answer can be found in exploring the motives of Gog U’Magog.

The Gog U’Magog Aggrandizement Agenda

Gog U’Magog are characterized by the middah of hisnasus a self-perception that they are elevated and exalted (Brachos 58a). They’re in no need of any outside force; everything under the sun is their domain. Their gematria is 70 implying total dominion over the 70 nations.

Their nemesis is Mashiach who comes from Dovid Hamelech. In Hallel Dovid celebrates his existence as dalosi v’li yehoshia declaring “I am impoverished and totally dependent on the salvation of the One and Only.”

The disparity between the two sides is spectacularly highlighted in their names. Spelling out the letters Gog is gimmel-vav-gimmel and Dovid is daled-vav-daled. The Talmud (Shabbos 104a) explains that the letters gimmel and daled correspond to gomel dalim providing for the needy. In other words gimmel is the powerful giver self-sufficient and dependent on nobody. Daled is the destitute recipient totally reliant on the beneficence of others. The letter vav is the Vav Hachibur the letter that connects. In our context it connects the Higher World with the Lower World.

In summary Gog’s name spells out “I am the powerful giver in both the Higher and Lower Words.” Dovid’s name responds with: “I am the vulnerable pauper in both the Higher and Lower Worlds.”

Two polar opposite worldviews clashing on one spectacular day.

Dovid Hamelech’s Day

Hoshana Rabbah is the day of Dovid Hamelech’s Ushpizin. After a week in a succah reflecting on our temporal existence we are ready to take our sense of vulnerability to a different level. (I shared this idea with my beloved talmidim in flood-ridden Houston painfully reflecting that “Succos has come to you six weeks early.”)

Dovid is the antithesis of Gog U’Magog. Gog U’Magog gematria 70 want to take the nations of the world and subdue them under their realm of hisnasus and reject any dependence on the One Upon High. On Hoshana Rabbah we take the last of the 70 bulls representing the 70 nations and bring them as korbanos in the Beis Hamikdash. They are now anchored under the true hisnasus the King of all Kings.

What is our role in the conflict to end all conflicts? How do we become soldiers of Mashiach ben Dovid? From Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur we go through 40 days of “basic training” by giving hisnasus and malchus to Hashem and submitting ourselves to His plan for perfecting the world. On Succos we “go out into the field ” and make it real.

Finally on Hoshana Rabbah we have a chance to go out into battle and be part of the victory. On Dovid Hamelech’s day we align ourselves with the essence of Mashiach ben Dovid.

We take the feeble aravah in our hands. The aravah has no taste and no smell representing the Yid with no Torah or mitzvos. We then smash it to the ground. After a long journey that started on Rosh Chodesh Elul and passed through the Days of Awe we have become the aravah. We have become Dovid Hamelech.

We have become nothing.

The Vault of Infinite Goodness

After the Cheit Ha’eigel debacle Moshe Rabbeinu ascends to Heaven looking for reconciliation. Hashem shows him the “otzros of sechar” the great vaults of reward for those who follow His Torah. Each mitzvah gets its own sublime vault. Finally Moshe sees a vault that is seemingly endless. He turns to Hashem and asks “Who has the zechus to receive so much sechar?”

Hashem gives a surprising and seemingly puzzling answer. “The other vaults are for those who have earned their reward. This is for those who have nothing.” (Midrash Shemos 45:6)

Who are the people who have nothing? Why do they receive boundless sechar?

They are the students of Dovid Hamelech who know with absolute clarity that they are nothing and that they deserve nothing. Hashem teaches Moshe the ultimate irony: The ones who have nothing are the ones who have everything.

Moshe himself falls into this category. Hashem explains to Aaron and Miriam “Lo kein avdi Moshe b’kol beisi ne’eman hu — My humble servant Moshe is different he is faithful everywhere in My house.” I have given him the keys to the universe. He can do whatever he wants. Yet I trust that everything he does will be done selflessly in My service.

When the sun sets on Hoshana Rabbah we get a taste of that infinity. Gog U’Magog are gone. The rehabilitation of the 70 nations is behind us. The avodah from shofar to aravah has become our spiritual essence.

All that is left is for us to dance with Hashem.


Sometimes I have wacky thoughts.

On Monday October 8 2001 the United States invaded Afghanistan as a response to the 9/11 attack. Thus began its longest war which watching from my Yerushalmi perch looked like a possible showdown between Bnei Eisav and Bnei Yishmael.

The date happened to be Hoshana Rabbah.

It occurred to me that just like World War II had its roots in World War I which began on Tishah B’Av perhaps the Chofetz Chaim’s World War III the three-hour war that destroys Gog U’Magog will have its roots in Hoshana Rabbah 5762.

As you can understand from what I’ve ritten I would not dare mention this to my rebbi. I’d probably have received one of his “Menachem-you-know-better-than-to-say-things-like-that” looks. Or if I was lucky he would have smiled and said “Nu nu!”

But I did mention it to Rav Nachman Bulman ztz”l in what turned out to be our last conversation before he returned his neshamah to heaven.

He thought for a moment and said “Who knows?”

And then he added “Once Mashiach comes we can look back at this whole period of history and all our questions will be answered.”

In Real Life

Rav Moshe in the Gulf War

The buildup to the Gulf War in 1990 was terrifying. Saddam Hussein was threatening to rain Israel with Scud missiles loaded with chemical weapons. Every house prepared a sealed room and the Home Front Command instructed us to shave off our beards so that the gas masks could fit properly. There was an atmosphere of panic. In those days I was teaching in Sharfman’s Seminary and the end-of-class humor was “See you tomorrow — if there is a tomorrow!”

When the war was over Rav Moshe Sternbuch remarked that we saw so many miracles we could rewrite the song “Ilu hotzianu miMitzrayim” with the nissim of the Gulf War.

My rebbi Rav Moshe Shapira inspired us with his emunah pshutah. He said with absolute conviction that we had nothing to fear from the war. He added that his only fear was from the peace that would be pursued when the war would be over. Indeed in 1993 the Oslo Accords were signed and within a year the Palestinian Authority was established in Jericho and the Gaza Strip.

In Rav Moshe’s words Bnei Yisrael had two ports of entry into Eretz Yisrael when they left Egypt. Either through Jericho or as was the original plan through “derech Eretz Plishtim” (Shemos 13:17) a reference to Gaza. The aftermath of the Gulf War led to the “giving over of the keys” of Eretz Yisrael to our enemies. That was something to worry about.

Interestingly Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita also shared Rav Moshe’s calm. When he was asked “How can you sit outdoors learning on your porch with Scud missiles screaming over Gush Dan? Don’t you know that Rav Shach instructed everyone to go into their sealed rooms?” Rav Chaim answered with a warm smile “I know something about Bnei Brak that Rav Shach doesn’t know. And what would that be? That Bnei Brak is protected by Rav Shach!”

When Rav Moshe was asked whether one should shave one’s beard he responded “Rav Shlomo Zalman [Auerbach] is not going to shave his beard!” Rav Yerachmiel Fried (presently rosh kollel in Dallas) shaved his beard based on a psak he had received from one of the gedolim of Yerushalayim. In Rav Yerachmiel’s words “That Friday when I walked into shiur he had a fit at me!”

One Thursday evening the sirens went off while Rav Moshe was giving his public shiur in Ohr Somayach. It’s astounding to listen to the recording. There was not the slightest pause or change in Rav Moshe’s voice. He continued as if nothing was happening.

Rav Moshe taught us that you can get far greater clarity about current events by learning what Chazal have to say about our era rather than by reading newspapers.

To drive his point home he observed that the war began on Rosh Chodesh Shevat and concluded on Purim. Both are dates that are associated with Torah shebe’al peh the Oral Law. On Rosh Chodesh Shevat Moshe Rabbeinu began to expound the Oral Law (Devarim 1:3) and on Purim we reaccepted Torah shebe’al peh (Shabbos 88a). As if to say if you want to understand the dramatic affairs of our era listen carefully Hashem is talking to us. Close your newspapers and listen to what He is saying!

Rav Moshe saw a silver lining in the forced restraint of the Israel Defense Forces at the behest of President Bush. Kochi v’otzem yadi was not an option. You had to choose between trust in the United States or trust in Hashem. The war was an easy opportunity to work on our emunah.

He felt that those who flew back home were missing out on the hisorerus. For those who were anxious about their safety he’d add “And who is to say it is safer in America? The whole world is like a kir natuy it’s like walking under a dangerously unstable wall.”

When I went to his house to ask him if I should fly to Johannesburg for my niece’s wedding the rebbetzin told me he wasn’t home. When I asked where I could find him she admitted that she didn’t know. “Ever since Klal Yisrael has been in danger he has been spending time with his chaburah involved in special tefillos. I have no idea where they meet....”

In Real Life

One Line Revolution

Rav Moshe’s succah was always vibrant inspiring and entertaining. The atmosphere was conducive for Rav Moshe to say one of his brilliant one-liners that literally changed people’s lives.

I once brought him an articulate charismatic young man who had been very successful in his secular career. He had given it all up to learn in kollel with a plan to go into kiruv one day and “save the world.” Rav Moshe schmoozed with him and picked up that he had a whiff of arrogance.

Although I don’t remember the exact words that Rav Moshe said his message had a profound effect on my friend and over the years he became a true talmid.

“Let me ask you something ” said Rav Moshe. “How does a person become a choshuve ben Torah?”

“By amassing Torah knowledge?” my friend cautiously suggested.

“Good enough. And how does a person become an adam gadol? Achieving true greatness?”

My friend was uncharacteristically at a loss for words. Rav Moshe forged ahead.

“When he realizes that whatever Torah knowledge he has amassed he’s just scratched the surface of what there is to learn.

“And when does he become the gadol hador? The greatest man in his generation?”

Rav Moshe paused for dramatic effect. “That’s the moment when he knows with total clarity that he knows absolutely nothing.”

Years later when my friend had become a highly successful mekarev Rav Moshe quipped “He had a personal revolution and with that he revolutionized a whole city.”

Originally featured in Family First Issue 562. Rabbi Menachem Nissel is a mechanech in Jerusalem and author of Rigshei Lev: Women and Tefillah. He is a talmid of Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l.