I did not know Rav Chaim Kanievsky. I never had the privilege of visiting him or consulting him on any matter. I do not recall hearing a drashah or inspirational speech from him. I read very little of his writings. Yet, like perhaps millions of Jews in Israel and throughout the world, I felt a very personal loss upon his passing.
Rav Chaim was not an orator. He was not a political figure. He was not a rosh ha’yeshivah. He was not a Rebbe with disciples. Under the instructions from his father, the Steipler Gaon zt”l, he did not even say a shiur. He learned Torah and learned more Torah. In fact, one of the best quips I saw going around (in Hebrew) was: “The story of Rav Chaim is that he was a Jew who learned Torah his whole life without interruption. All the other stories about him were of people who interrupted his learning.”
What is it, then, that made thousands of Jews travel untold distances or wait on endless lines just to get a few precious moments with him? Often, they would receive a brachah or response to their question that was barely audible.
Rav Chaim was special because he was the embodiment of k’dushah, holiness. Holiness is what defines Judaism. “Speak unto the assembly of the Children of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem, your G-d” (VaYikra 19:2).
The laws of kosher in the Torah conclude with: “For I am Hashem, your G-d; you are to sanctify yourselves and you shall be holy” (ibid. 11:44).
The M’silas Y’sharim (Path of the Just), by 18th-century Italian rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto famously begins with the introduction outlining the roadmap to achieve k’dushah. It is the ultimate goal for every Jew to achieve a level of holiness.
Think about it: How many other nations or religions demand of its entire populace to become holy? All Jews, in the way they talk, eat, engage in commerce, maintain family relations, celebrate their Sabbath and holidays, are enjoined to do so in a holy fashion – not by isolation in a commune, but by living life, a life guided by Torah.
I am not an expert in other religions or their leadership. But how many spiritual leaders have you read about or heard of who were spiritual giants? Many were fiery and charismatic personalities. Many tried doing good for their people. Some were worse and some were better towards the plight of Jews. But how many were G-dly and enraptured in His service? How many made you sense that when you were in their presence you were in the presence of holiness, not just scholarship or leadership? Mother Teresa, the Catholic nun who lived from 1910 until 1997, may have been a holy person. But again, I am not the expert.
What Rav Chaim represented was that which was the very mission of the Jewish People: holiness.
Israeli social media blogger Shai Goldin had a fascinating post about the l’vayah (Rav Kanievsky’s funeral). Addressing his secular audience on Facebook, he opened with, “My secular friends who want to revolutionize against religion, welcome to the real Israel!” He continued by stating that the fact that nearly a million Israelis attended the funeral for this humble Jew from Bnei Brak shows how the heart the Jewish people yearns for spirituality. There is no escaping it.
Rav Chaim was the very essence of spirituality. He was holiness on earth. He was the very pinnacle of what a Jew is commissioned to be.
I am not in a position to judge, but it seems to me that, with the passing of Rav Chaim, we have closed a chapter in Jewish history. We have had N’viim (prophets), Tana’im, Amora’im, Geonim, Rishonim, and Acharonim. We now have the end of the holy ones. Yes, there are outstanding talmidei chachamim without question. Certainly, there are holy admorim in the chasidic world, and there are great Sephardic leaders, but as far as the old world Litvish giants who instilled a sense of awe to the beholder, I think Rav Chaim was the last. As was Rav Moshe Feinstein in America.
It’s a shame that our children will not witness that phenomenon. But the Torah will take care of itself. As this generation morphs into the next, as the Acharonim did following the Rishonim, we will build upon the shoulders of these great ones to reach new heights, with the help of Hashem.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.