Translation by Yeshoshua Siskin
Rabbi Uri Zohar was a famous Israeli actor and movie director who became religiously observant 40 years ago. On Erev Shavuot, the festival of Matan Torah, he passed away. Here are a few things about him that continually astonished me when we met. All of them are associated with the fact that the Torah shaped his character during the last decades of his life:
First, his relationship with time was remarkable. Every minute was precious. Among all the people that I have known, perhaps Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky alone managed every moment of his time with such care. Rabbi Uri's learning sessions with study partners began at dawn. His phone conversations were short and to the point. And every lecture he was invited to deliver, whether in Israel or abroad, was weighed in terms of the benefit it would bring to the world. When an interview with him was over, even while the crew was still folding up its equipment, he had already plunged back into his learning. "I missed out on forty years," he smiled, "and there are gaps I need to fill."
Second, his joy was palpable. Many of those who become observant initially see the light, so to speak, but after a few years need to work hard to keep up their enthusiasm. The routine grinds them up. But for Rabbi Uri, the spark did not go out even for a moment. When we recently filmed him praying the morning prayers, at the height of the pandemic, it appeared that he was as passionate about putting on tefillin as he was when putting it on for the first time. "I am the happiest man in the world and the richest man in the world," he told me in one of our interviews. When I asked him about his humble living quarters, he explained: "I am the happiest man in the world since there is nothing in this world that I want that I don't have," whereupon he returned to the Gemara open before him.
Finally, the manner in which he related to me personally was extraordinary. Many felt the same way. How is it possible to fill every moment with learning and still be so pleasant to others? How is it possible to remember and give counsel to so many people, and to impart to every one of them a good feeling? Once a book of mine that had just been published was left in his mailbox. We delivered the book in this way to dozens of people. But he was the only one who called me on the phone within the hour. "I do not want to remain in your debt," Rabbi Uri said, having worked on his character traits with such diligence since the long ago wild days of his past. "You gave me a book as a gift, perhaps I will read it, but I am obliged to say thank you. So thank you."
On every celebration of Shavuot, it is as if we are standing once again at Mount Sinai. Whoever entered the tiny home of Uri Zohar, even for a moment, felt that they were standing at Mount Sinai, that the Torah was being given at that precise moment and in that special place.