He’s Closer Than We Think

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Rabbi Meyer Yedid

On Shushan Purim, 5782 (March 19, 2022), the Jewish world lost the man known as the “Sar HaTorah” (“Master of the Torah”), Rav Chaim Kanievsky, zt”l, recognized by the Torah world as the generation’s leading rabbinic sage, revered for his unparalleled mastery of the entire corpus of Torah literature, and for his love and commitment to every Jew. The following is an adaptation of the eulogy delivered by Rav Mayer Yedid in Congregation Shaare Zion.

What could we possibly learn from an angel?

When we think of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, we immediately feel completely disconnected. He was an angel of a human being. He seems so far beyond anything we could relate to. What can we, ordinary people, learn from him?

But if we take a closer look, we will see that Rav Chaim was much closer to us than we think.

Normally, when a great Torah figure passes away, messages and notices are posted announcing the loss of the rabbi, who was “Rosh Yeshivat Such-and-Such Yeshiva,” or “Rabbi of Such-and-Such Congregation.” Rav Chaim was neither a Rosh Yeshiva nor a congregational rabbi. He wasn’t a Rosh Kollel. He had no formal title, no formal position.

He was just like most of us.

The vast majority of us are not Rosheh Yeshiva, Rosheh Kollel, or rabbis of synagogues. We are just private people going about our lives. Rav Chaim was the same way. He was not formally the head of any institution. He was a private person. And this makes him very close to us.

“What are You?”

The Brisker Rav (Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, 1886-1959) once greeted a visitor who came to his home, and asked him, “What are you?”

“I’m a businessman,” the fellow replied.

Shaking his head, the Brisker Rav said, “No, no, what are you?”

The guest repeated, “I’m a businessman.”

Once again, the Brisker Rav said, “No, what are you?”

Figuring that the rabbi was hard of hearing, the visitor shouted, “I’m a businessman!”

“Stop shouting – I heard you the first time!” the rabbi said.

He proceeded to explain that a Jew is not defined by his professional title, by what he does for a living. This is a mistake people make. A person is not a doctor. Or a lawyer. Or a businessman. Or a housewife. Or a teacher. Or a rabbi. These titles describe what a person does for a good part of the day, but not what he is.

The correct answer to the question of “Who are you?” or “What do you do?” is taught to us by the prophet Yonah (1:8-9). The sailors on the ship turned to him and asked, “Mah melachtecha – What is your work?” and he replied, “Ivri anochi, ve’et Hashem Elokeh hashamayim ani yareh – I am a Jew, and I fear Hashem, Gd of the heavens.”

Here in the United States, the question “What do you do?” means “How do you make money?” But if a Jew is asked “What do you do?” the only answer is “Ivri anochi – I am a Jew.”

This was Rav Chaim. He was not a Rosh Yeshiva. He was not a Rosh Kollel. He was a Jew, and as a Jew, the only thing on his mind at any moment was, “What does Hashem want from me now?”

This is one thing we can learn from Rav Chaim – to remember who we are, and the purpose for which we are here in this world. We are here to serve Hashem. Let’s not let our titles, our job, our official positions, distract us from this definition of our essence: “Ivri anochi!”

Finish the Job!

It is well known that Rav Chaim finished the entire Torah – all the classic Torah texts, including the Tanach, Midrashim, both Talmuds, Rambam and Shulhan Aruch – each and every year. Very few people, even scholars, complete this in a lifetime. Rav Chaim completed it every year.

It might not be realistic for us to strive to complete the entire Torah. But there is one thing we can take from this: to finish what we start.

If you started a masechet, finish it. If you started a project, finish it. If you started helping somebody, follow up until the end.

If we come away from Rav Chaim’s passing saying to ourselves, “Well, I’m never going to learn the entire Torah anyway,” then we are completely missing the point. The point is not that we have to complete the entire Torah. The point is that we have to finish what we start. Don’t let that masechet go. Don’t let that seder (regular learning session) slide. Don’t let that person be forgotten. You don’t need to be a Rav Chaim Kanievsky to do that. Start what you finish.

We cannot even imagine how difficult it must have been for Rav Chaim to complete this project each year. We must assume that countless things came up over the years, numerous different challenges, each of which might have been enough for him to start thinking, “Ok, not this year… It’s too hard… It’s not possible…” But his commitment was unshakeable. He

made no excuses for not finishing. He ensured to complete the job, year in, and year out. This is certainly something that we can learn.

A Different Kind of Wealth

Rav Chaim’s apartment in Bnei-Brak was famous for being, we might say, “disappointing,” considering he was the gadol hador (greatest sage of the generation). I had the privilege of being there numerous times. The walls were not painted. The furniture was older than him, and he likely purchased it second-hand. There was a hardly a kitchen.

Hundreds of people visited his home each day. We cannot imagine how many wealthy millionaires visited him. Without doubt, he received many offers of money for an “upgrade,” for some renovation, for a more comfortable chair, a sturdier table, or an expansion. But he never wanted it. And the reason why he never wanted it is because he wanted to teach us that true simha does not come from a large home or fancy furniture. He wanted us to know that no matter what your house looks like, you can be happy, fulfilled and content.

Rav Chaim served as a sandak – holding the infant during a berit – every day. Many parents brought their child to be held by Rav Chaim during the berit. The rabbis teach that serving as sandak is a segulah for becoming wealthy. And so somebody once approached Rav Chaim and asked why, after serving as a sandak so many times, he was not wealthy.

He answered that having a lot of money is only one kind of wealth. Citing his father, the famous Steipler Gaon (Rav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, 1899-1985), he explained that Torah knowledge is wealth. The ability to learn, to amass scholarship and wisdom, to teach and to write – this is wealth.

“And if you ask me,” Rav Chaim added, “wealth comes from my family, from my children and grandchildren.”

No, money is not bad, and those with nice, large homes should not feel bad. There’s nothing wrong with having a nice kitchen, but life isn’t about that. We need to stop worrying about, and paying an inordinate amount of attention to, the things which don’t really matter. What matters most is Torah, our families, our children, our grandchildren, education, and Am Yisrael. This is what Rav Chaim taught us. Happiness comes from Torah and from family – not from the size of our homes or the quality of our furniture.

It’s Not About You

Thousands upon thousands of people flocked to Rav Chaim to ask him questions or receive his blessing. Many people would come up with a question that wasn’t really bothering them just to have something to speak to him about. Some came just to have their picture taken with him. He had hundreds of people lining up to speak to him each and every day.

We cannot even imagine how tiring this must have been. We must wonder, did he ever have private time? Did he ever get to just relax on the couch?

Once, I came to Rav Chaim’s home while he was eating dinner. He was eating a salad, and somebody was sitting next to him with boxes full of letters. The man would read the

question in the letter, and Rav Chaim would give his brief response: “Yes;” “No;” “Permissible; “Forbidden; etc. This is how Rav Chaim ate dinner.

Do we always ensure to respond to every letter sent to us? Rav Chaim did.

He understood that we are not placed here in the world for ourselves, so we can enjoy and relax. We are here to help people, to give, to contribute. Of course, unlike Rav Chaim, we need time to unwind and relax, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if we have energy, if we have free time, and somebody needs our assistance – we need to go out and help.

The next time somebody asks us for a favor, let’s think about Rav Chaim, how he took the time to speak to and help hundreds and hundreds of people each day.

There is No “Retirement”

King David says in Tehillim (92:15) about righteous people, “Od yenuvun besevah – They shall still produce in old age.”

Many people start feeling old, like they need to retire, to relax and vacation. But retirement is for the deceased, not for the living. As long as we are alive, we need to look ahead, to have our eyes open, to be hungry for more achievement. In fact, as we grow older, we should become even hungrier, because we understand that time is running out…

I’ve been visiting Rav Chaim’s apartment for the last 30 years or so. I don’t remember noticing a single difference in the way he looked or acted throughout those 30 years. He sat in the same chair, doing the same things, and following the same schedule. He passed away at the age of 94. There are pictures of people with him on Purim the day before he died. He never stopped working, achieving and producing. “Od yenuvun besevah.”

If you’re retired, if you sold your business, then start learning. Take on new sedarim. As you get older, take on more, not less. Work to become greater.

“Ki na’ar Yisrael va’ohaevhu – For Israel is a youngster, and I love him” (Hoshea 11:1). Hashem has special love for those who are a “na’ar,” who have youthful ambition, who look to the future like youngsters do. He has special love for those who don’t talk about the past, about what they’ve already accomplished, but rather talk about their future ambitions.

The Torah says that until Moshe Rabbenu’s final breath, “lo chahatah eno” – his eyesight never dimmed (Devarim 34:7). A person’s eyes begin to “dim” when he stops using them to look ahead at what he can still accomplish in the future. Moshe Rabbenu’s eyesight remained intact because he never stopped looking to see what more he can do. Rav Chaim provided us with an image of “lo chahatah eno,” of a person who never stopped working and producing.

The first mitzvah performed in the Bet Hamikdash each morning was terumat hadeshen – removing the ashes from the mizbeah (altar). A kohen would climb to the top of the mizbeach and collect the ashes that had collected overnight. This job was assigned not to a custodian, but to a kohen. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) explained that the kohen needed to be reminded that yesterday’s service is finished; today starts a new day. Yesterday’s sacrifices are not on the altar anymore; we need to start the new day from scratch.

In Rav Hirsch’s words, “The thought of what has already been accomplished can be the death of that which still must be accomplished.” We cannot leave yesterday’s “offerings” on the “mizbeah.” We cannot focus our attention on what we’ve already done. Today is a new day, with so much more that we can do and achieve.

Until his final day at the age of 94, Rav Chaim was learning and helping people. He did not stop. He did not for a moment look back with contentment at what he had already accomplished and say, “Ok, I did enough.” He showed us that each and every morning, the “mizbeah” is empty again, waiting for our “avodah,” for our new accomplishments.

Staying Focused

Reflecting on the life of Rav Chaim, we must be asking ourselves: Can’t we have bigger plans? Isn’t there more we can and should be doing with our free time? Are we maybe selling ourselves short? There is so much to learn. There is so much to do. Are we maximizing our time? Are we being the best we can be?

The final chapter of Pirkeh Avot lists the “kinyaneh Torah,” the 48 means by which we acquire Torah scholarship, including taharah – “purity.” One aspect of “purity” is focus and concentration, being fully present, fully focused on our goal. Rav Chaim lived a life of “taharah.” He was completely focused on the goal of being an eved Hashem, a servant of Gd. He did not allow anything to distract him from this goal.

We need to learn this focus, to live with a constant awareness of “Ivri anochi,” that we are here to serve Hashem. We are not going to live like Rav Chaim, but we do need to put the phone away, to stop getting distracted, to stop wasting our time and our energy.

Rav Chaim lived each day as an eved Hashem – and so can we, as long as we remain focused on this goal, and we always remember that this is who we really are.

Teheh nishmato tzerurah bitzror hahaim.