Evel Gadol LaYehudim
It all suddenly…stopped. Having finished our Purim Seudot on Friday at Yeshivat Hakotel in Yerushalayim, we were now preparing for the transition to Shabbat — to turn the simcha of Purim into the oneg of Shabbat.
Then we heard the news. First, we heard that he was very sick and that tefilot were needed. We immediately turned heavenward; soon after, we were informed that Hashem had taken Rav Chaim Kanievsky ztvk”l to the Heavens. The picture of his body wrapped in a tallit lying on the floor of his apartment drove the reality home. Rav Chaim was no longer learning Torah at his table, as he had been almost without pause for so many decades.
Purim — the day that commemorates the transition from mourning to simcha — reverted to mourning — evel gadol laYehudim. We entered Shabbat reflecting upon what we had lost: our generation’s greatest talmid chacham. Rav Chaim was famous not only for knowing the whole Torah in an encyclopedic fashion, but also for his disciplined commitment to reviewing it all each year and making an annual Siyum on the whole Torah every Erev Pesach. In addition to his Torah knowledge, Rav Chaim was also famous for his sensitive berachot and advice.
Hundreds of Thousands Converge
We entered the new week waiting to hear details of the levaya for this gadol hador. There was apprehension about the gathering of close to a million Jews together. The memory of the Meiron tragedy is still fresh, and everyone wanted to ensure that no further lives would be at risk. When the police announced that they would be closing the roads in and around Bnei Brak at 6:00 AM, thousands made their way to Bnei Brak on Motzei Shabbat, many without knowing where they would sleep.
We at Yeshivat Hakotel knew that the latest we could leave for the levaya would be 5:00 AM. Over one hundred talmidim signed up within fifteen minutes of opening registration. We traveled to Yeshivat Ramat Gan for Shacharit and a Morning Seder of learning dedicated in memory of Rav Chaim.
After the roads closed, hundreds of thousands took buses and trains to the closest possible locations and then walked great distances to attend the levaya. The masses who had visited Rav Chaim seeking his beracha and advice during his lifetime would not let anything keep them from coming to mourn and show their respect and appreciation for him after his death. Closed highways outside of Bnei Brak were used as parking lots for the miles-long lines of hundreds of buses.
The mass gathering fulfilled the teaching of the Gemara (Moed Katan 16b) that the Torah publicizes one who learns Torah in private. Many people spend their lives trying to become famous, but ultimately have their funerals attended by (at most) a few thousand people. Rav Chaim learned alone in a small room and did nothing to promote himself. In fact, he ran from kavod. He had no position, did not write articles for the masses, and had no Whatsapp or social media presence. Yet, hundreds of thousands came to his funeral. This is only because of the objective value of what he involved himself in and what it contributed to our world.
The fact that so many hundreds of thousands of people did not let any challenge stop them from attending the levaya was an appropriate tribute to Rav Chaim, who did not allow anything to keep him from his consistent commitment to his life’s mission of Talmud Torah. Rav Chaim often spoke about how he was no smarter than his peers. He eclipsed them all because of his tremendous work ethic and maximization of time. He felt absolutely responsible to learn what he saw as his “chovos” (debts) for each day. He amassed and retained his great Torah knowledge by “paying” these debts day in and day out for over ninety years.
The phrase we kept hearing at the levaya was “mesirut nefesh,” the complete commitment of one’s life to one’s values. We know of many who gave up their lives for Jewish principles. Rav Chaim was someone who completely devoted his life — all ninety-four years of his time here with us — to Torah.
Torah Achdut Event
Like the Siyumei Hashas, the levaya gathering was a Torah-based achdut event. Though many of the attendees were from Bnei Brak and Yerushalayim, there were many people (young and old) from many other Torah communities in attendance as well.
This achdut was rooted in the fact that it was our shared appreciation of our Torah that brought us together, irrespective of hashkafa and political affiliation. As I walked the streets, I met rebbeim, friends, and talmidim from all stages of my life, from different yeshivot and different communities. Those who value Torah came together in one place at one time.
This feeling of achdut was reinforced by the great chessed of the Bnei Brak community. In addition to stands distributing free food and drinks (cold and hot) on each block, there were hundreds of signs inviting people to use restrooms located in private apartments of almost every building. In addition, various Bnei Brak-based chassidic sects prepared and served hot breakfast and lunch to the thousands who had traveled to pay their respect to Rav Chaim.
This experience was a reminder to all in attendance that Rav Chaim was not just someone who was strongly committed to Torah; he was also deeply committed to chessed. One of the organizations Rav Chaim was associated with is B’Lev Echad, an organization dedicated to assisting sick and disabled children and adults. Rav Chaim and the Bnei Brak community he inspired are world-famous for the way they care for all Jews. They have founded hundreds of gemachim (free lending organizations) that offer every imaginable object and service free for all to use.
There was a beautiful sense of achdut, chessed, and kindness bein adam l’chaveiro throughout the day.
Turning to Hashem
The levaya began with tefilla: Tehillim and Selichot with the thirteen middot harachamim. A gadol’s levaya is a time for us to daven together. Rav Chaim’s life was based on the three pillars that Pirkei Avos identifies as supporting the world: Torah, Tefilla (Avodah) and Chessed.
After the tefillot, the hundreds of thousands in attendance were mekabel ol malchut shamayim in unison (as we do at the end of the Yom Kippur davening) with the joint recitation of Shema Yisrael, Baruch Shem (three times), Hashem Hu Ha’Elokim (seven times), and Hashem Melech.
Appreciating What We Lost and What To Learn
Three Rabbis were maspid (eulogized) Rav Chaim and shared aspects of his life that we should all learn from.
(The following is taken from Sivan Rahav-Meir’s summary.)
The first was Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein, shlit”a, Rav Chaim’s brother-in-law, who spoke about Rav Chaim’s work ethic. He was not born already Rav Kanievsky. He transformed himself into the Torah giant that we know him as by maximizing his time. He took his time so seriously that he blessed the thousands who came to visit him with the abbreviation “Buha” instead of taking the time to enunciate the full “beracha v’hatzlacha” phrase.
The next speaker was Rav Gershon Edelstein, shlit”a. Rav Gershon (as he is affectionately known to his followers and students at Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak) spoke about how Rav Chaim, despite (and maybe because of) his greatness, was always looking for ways to further improve himself. He cited examples as to how Rav Chaim always strived to learn better and be a better husband, father, neighbor, and friend. Rav Gershon explained that we need to learn Torah and (specifically) Mussar seforim in order to avoid slipping into habits. The goal of life is not to go with the flow, but to ensure that we continue growing. This, he explained, is how we achieve true happiness. This is how Rav Gershon, at age ninety-eight, eulogized his friend who died at age ninety-four.
One of Rav Chaim’s sons, Rav Shlomo Kanievsky, shlit”a, spoke about his father’s special relationship with his mother (the late Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky a”h). For years, they would wake up together at sunrise and recite the morning berachot together. They would alternate saying the berachot and saying amen to each other’s beracha. They were a couple who began their day by expressing appreciation to Hashem together. Rav Chaim also showed great respect for his wife. He would not begin eating any meal until she was there with him. (Of course, he would learn until she arrived.)
In addition to these speakers, Yeshivat Hakotel talmidim had the zechut to hear from Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon and personal stories from renowned storyteller, Rav Chanoch Teller.
Rav Rimon spoke about how special Gedolei Hador are and how few there are. He spoke about how much chizuk he gained through his meetings with Rav Chaim and other Gedolei Hador and encouraged us to learn from Rav Chaim’s passing to take more advantage of opportunities to interact with other Gedolim.
Rav Teller is well known for his many biographies of Gedolei Torah. In fact, he met with Rav Chaim to present the biography he wrote about Rav Chaim’s father — the Steipler. Rav Teller spoke about the special relationships Rav Chaim had with the Gedolei Hador of previous generations to whom he was related, including the Steipler (his father), the Chazon Ish (his uncle), and Rav Elyashiv (his father-in-law). This made Rav Chaim a bearer of special legacies we should make sure to appreciate.
After the hespedim, as we joined the masses in accompanying Rav Chaim to the cemetery, we reflected on the many lessons we had learned from Rav Chaim and his especially meaningful life.
Though the hundreds of thousands gathered to mourn, I believe that we left inspired by the lessons we learned from Rav Chaim’s life and invigorated by the strength of the Torah community that continues living by Torah values.
A weekend that began with joy that turned to grief, ended up generating optimism and confidence for our future.