I have been seeking meaning in the recent passing of the Torah scholar Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky. What was it about him that brought, according to some accounts, nearly a million people to his funeral in Israel? Did he hold the Chief Rabbi position or was he a known TV personality? Nobody I ask seems to know or have ever heard of him…
Rav Chaim was widely recognized as the Gadol Hador, or leading Torah sage of our generation. This title is not one conferred by a committee, a rabbinical establishment or a vote by the people. It’s rather an inherent recognition by that generation of Jews that there resides a man among them who is unparalleled in his vast erudition of the entirety of Torah. It’s not an official position and is unpaid. This man, in his tremendous humility, was never seen on a TV or radio show.
This giant of men became known through the untold thousands who passed through his home to seek his advice, obtain his blessing or receive his warmth and encouragement at a challenging time. The greatest scholars of the generation went to him seeking his resolution of a difficult question. Leading government officials, often secular ones, approached him to seek his advice and guidance through the thorniest of issues. The poor and downtrodden beseeched his help in attaining their livelihoods. In fact, Rav Chaim singlehandedly raised the funds to support untold numbers of widows and their families.
A very cynical secular Israeli professor had heard about this great scholar and went for a visit. He wrote that he fully expected the man who was known as the generation’s greatest sage to be living in tremendous wealth, subverting funds meant to be for the poor to his own comfort, as the secular Israelis often stereotype the “haredim.” Standing in line, he was struck by the simplicity of the other petitioners, some of them obviously in distress for one reason or another. One by one, they emerged from his home with a new sparkle in their eyes and smiles upon their faces, standing taller than when they entered.
When he finally was granted entry, expecting to see the opulent home of the leading haredi sage, he was shocked by the absolute simplicity of the home. He was shown entry through the threadbare bedroom and into the tiny, simple office adorned by nothing but the Rav’s decades-old worn chair, a number of worn books and the glowing smile of Rav Chaim. He expected to have to pay for his visit, but Rav Chaim would receive no money. If he insisted, he was shown to a room outside where collections were received for the poor and widows. The professor, who subsequently visited the rabbi a number of times, writes that this man being the leader of the haredi world changed his outlook on the “ultra-Orthodox” forever. He laments that the secular world doesn’t have a figure like this, a man filled with humility, compassion and wisdom to receive any and all and help them with whatever they need in their lives.
His humble lifestyle and his love and compassion for every Jew, coupled with the numerous profound and scholarly works exhibiting Rav Chaim’s knowledge and understanding unparalleled in our generation, gave him his unofficial title of Gadol Hador.
This is what brought nearly a million Jews to his funeral to mourn the loss of the leader of our generation.
May we all increase our Torah study and love and compassion for another, to make up — even a little — for the tremendous loss in those areas. That will surely awaken his compassion from his place on high to beseech the Al-mighty to have mercy on our generation, mercy we so sorely need.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of Dallas Area Torah Association.