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Isha Bekia

The ‘still delicate voice’ of Reb Chaim

Mar 22, 2022 | Israel, Tributes


This week, the South African kehilla joined klal Yisroel around the world to mourn the passing of the Sar HaTorah, HaGaon HaRav Chaim Kanievsky zt”l.

In an overflowing Ohr Somayach Beis Midrash in Johannesburg, there was a tremendous outpouring of emotion at a gathering to pay respects to and mourn the passing of the Gadol HaDor. These emotional scenes were a reflection of the sense of great mourning felt in the kehillos across the world, most noteworthy, obviously, the hundreds of thousands of people who attended the funeral in Israel, one of the largest public gatherings in the country’s history.

Take a moment to reflect how remarkable this global response is. Reb Chaim, as he was fondly known throughout the world, held no official position, no title other than ‘rabbi’. He wielded no political power or executive authority. He commanded no budgets, no teams of employees, no press or media operation. And yet, he was one the most influential leaders in the Jewish world. 

His authority derived not from any financial or political power but simply from the depth and breadth of his Torah wisdom, from the nobility of his character, and the sincerity of his deeds. The influence he wielded, the honour he was accorded, the veneration he inspired, resided purely in his spirit. 

The prophet is told that Hashem is not found in the drama of the ‘howling wind, nor in the raging fire, nor in the tumultuous earthquake’  but “in a still delicate voice” (1 Kings 19:12). Reb Chaim’s influence came through the “still delicate voice” of his teachings and writings, in his peerless mastery of every aspect of Torah. He wrote great works of halacha, but with all his remarkable intellectual accomplishments, his “still delicate voice” was also heard in his righteousness, through his living embodiment of Torah values. 

I experienced this personally. I met with Reb Chaim on three occasions. When I started my position as a young chief rabbi, he gave me a special blessing that stayed with me and gave me great encouragement. I met with him again just as the international Shabbos Project was getting off the ground, and his endorsement meant so much to me personally and also helped draw support for the project. Later, in 2019, he helped me launch a campaign for shomer Shabbos communities to deepen their Shabbos experience through learning Masechta Shabbos to join in the Shabbos Project that year.  

On the occasions I was privileged to meet with Rabbi Kanievsky, I was struck  by the modesty of his small apartment in Bnei Brak. No elaborate office with grand views. No plush furniture. Everything was so simple. Books were everywhere – one of which was always open in front of him. The atmosphere was permeated with humility and wisdom. 

I saw how Reb Chaim was always  totally accessible to anyone who wanted to speak to him – to seek his advice, or his blessing or simply an answer to a Torah question. Whenever I went to meet with him, there were lines of people outside his door. The people who stood in those queues day after day were from all walks of life. Young and old, rich and poor, learned and not.

His wisdom, compassion and learning moved people, and that is why they made him their Gadol HaDor the “Great of the Generation”. It is a title that no committee can award you. There is no election that you stand for. It cannot be bought or attained by any official process. And it comes with no benefits or perks or power in the traditional sense. It is a title awarded by the people – from the most learned to the least – to a sage who has captured their hearts and minds with his righteousness and learning. The Sar HaTorah, Reb Chaim, did so for decades. 

The best way for us to pay respects is by learning more Torah in his merit, especially during the shloshim, which he would certainly have regarded as the greatest gift anyone could give him.

May his memory be a blessing.