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 tefillot 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. There was apprehension about the gathering of close to a million Jews together. The memory of the Meron 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 a.m., thousands made their way to Bnei Brak on Motzaei 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 a.m. Over 100 talmidim signed up within 15 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 showing their respects 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, and he amassed and retained his great Torah knowledge by “paying” these debts day in and day out for over 90 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 94 years of his time here with us – to Torah.
Achdut And Chessed
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.
Our shared appreciation of our Torah 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 chesed 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 chesed. 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, chesed, and kindness bein adam l’chaveiro throughout the day.
Turning to Hashem
The levaya began with tefillah: 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, Tefillah (Avodah) and Chesed.
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 gave hespedim and shared aspects of Rav Chaim’s life that we should all learn from. (See summaries in Sivan Rahav-Meir’s column on page 33.)
In addition to the maspidim, Yeshivat HaKotel talmidim had the zechut to hear from Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon and personal stories from renowned storyteller Rav Hanoch Teller.
Rav Rimon spoke about how special gedolei ha’dor are and how few there are. He spoke about how much chizuk he gained through his meetings with Rav Chaim and other gedolei ha’dor 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. Rav Teller spoke about the special relationships Rav Chaim had with the gedolei ha’dor of previous generations to whom he was related, including the Steipler, the Chazon Ish (his uncle), and Rav Elyashiv (his father-in-law). This made Rav Chaim a bearer of special legacies.
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.