Rav Chaim Kanievsky- A Modern Day Hero
Who are your heroes? Do you ever stop to wonder what qualities a person should have to be a hero? A good list might include famous, brilliant, charismatic, erudite, focused, strong willed, brave and perhaps good looking. But what about kind, giving, always pleasant, selfless, even tempered? Would these adjectives fit that same person?
The Jewish World lost a hero last week. His name is Shmaryahu Yosef Chaim Kanievsky. (Rav Chaim Kanievsky) Hundreds of thousands followed his every word, and almost three quarters of a million people escorted him to his final resting place at his funeral. Think about that - 750,000 people lined the streets to say goodbye to this very special man! And millions more mourned his death and watched his funeral from all over the world.
This was a man who never held an official position as a Rabbi or teacher and yet thousands descended upon his humble apartment with questions or requests for blessings. And it wasn’t just religious people who went to him. It was every type of Jew from every walk of life. Why would they do that?
Rav Chaim dedicated himself to learning Torah every day, starting at 2 am, for 20+ hours each day. He understood he had an obligation, a responsibility that was not for him, but was for G-d. He completed the study of the entire Torah every year. This includes Tanach, Mishnah, Babylonian Talmud, Jerusalem Talmud, Midrashim, Zohar, plus the primary works of Jewish law (Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah, Tur, Shulchan Aruch, and Mishnah Berurah) . To understand the significance and magnitude of this type of yearly learning, people who take on the Daf HaYomi (a page of the Babylonian Talmud (gemara) a day) complete their cycle in 7 years!
You might ask, what is the purpose of all this learning and why repeat it each year?
Who was he and why should we care?
Rav Chaim, as he is known, was born in 1928 in what is now Belarus. He descended from Torah giants - his father was The Steipler Rav (Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky and his uncle (his Mother’s brother) was the Chazon Ish (Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz). His family moved to Israel in 1934 when he was 6. He never left Israel after that and became a lifelong advocate of aliyah.
Rav Chaim demonstrated, at a very young age while learning with his Father and Uncle, a grasp of Torah concepts and erudition that singled him out as a masmid - someone who needed to devote his life to learning. In fact, the Steipler and the Chazon Ish encouraged him to “sit and learn” and not take any official positions as a Rabbi or teacher. Even when he was called to defend his new country during the War of Independence, Rav Chaim went with sefer in hand along with stones and sticks since Israel, in its infancy, didn’t have enough armaments to distribute to every soldier.
He married Batsheva Eliyashiv, the daughter of another Torah giant, Rabbi Yosef Sholom Eliyashiv (Rabbi Eliyashiv) and raised a family of 8 children in a small apartment with just 2 ½ bedrooms.
Although influenced by these great Torah personalities in his life, the greatness of Rav Chaim was that he forged his own path, laser focused and determined. He rarely left the study hall, either in Yeshiva or his home. When a person chooses to learn the same material, year after year, for decades, they not only become an expert, even an encyclopedia, they become one with the subject. When the subject is the Torah, they become one with G-d on a level that is rare and even unique. This was the level that Rav Chaim Kanievsky achieved in his lifetime. His knowledge was known as Das Torah and, as the Steipler remarked:
“When a person sits and learns Hashem’s Torah to the point of being completely immersed in it, then his answers do not come from him, but from the Torah itself, with which he is saturated. [Rav Chaim] “lives in the Gemara. Ask him [for guidance}, and that will be like ruach hakodesh (Divine Inspiration).
In the last few decades more and more people came to Rav Chaim for blessings and guidance -from complex questions of Jewish law to what appliance to use as well as to get blessings for a shidduch (someone to marry), to be able to bear children, or whether a certain medical treatment was appropriate. They came to Rav Chaim because they knew that whatever came out of his mouth was from G-d, with no filters based on current political or societal dogma.
He treated every person with respect and knew that if they were in front of him, it meant that G-d meant for them to be there and thus his job was to help them. He helped thousands upon thousands of Jews in ways that were obvious - finding a soul mate, having a baby, recovering miraculously from an illness. But also in so many ways that were hidden. When a holy person gives you a bracha, you walk away and think, “okay, now I’ll go find my way home.” Little do you know that the impact of that Bracha came down from the heavens and entered your soul and, from that day on, will guide your every step, whether you realize it or not.
Rav Chaim, through his blessings, gave you direction and protected you at the same time. He was a hero because he modeled a life that was singular in its purpose, infused with meaning and holiness, never judgemental, and always directed not for himself but by what G-d wanted.