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The passing of a Torah giant

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This week, South African Jewry joined Jews around the world to mourn the passing of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, of blessed memory, the leading Torah sage of our generation.

Hundreds gathered at a memorial service in Johannesburg, where there was a tremendous outpouring of emotion and a number of stirring tributes. These emotional scenes were a reflection of the sense of great mourning felt across the Jewish world. Earlier in the week, hundreds of thousands attended Kanievsky’s funeral in Israel, one of the largest public gatherings in the country’s history.

Take a moment to reflect how remarkable that 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 tells us that he found Hashem not in the drama of the “howling wind, nor in the raging fire, nor in the tumultuous earthquake” but “in a delicate still voice” (1 Kings 19:12). Kanievsky’s influence came through the “delicate still voice” of his teachings and writings, in his peerless Torah scholarship. He wrote great works of halacha. But with all his remarkable intellectual accomplishments, his “delicate still voice” was also heard in his righteousness, through his living embodiment of the divine values of our Torah.

I experienced this personally. I met 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 him again just as the international Shabbat 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 Shabbat observant communities to deepen their Shabbat experience through Torah learning.

On the occasions I was privileged to meet 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 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’s why they made him their gadol hador (the great of the generation). It’s a title that no committee can award you. There’s 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’s 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. Kanievsky did so for decades.

The best way for us to pay respects is by learning more Torah in his merit, especially during the shloshim (first 30 days of mourning), which he would certainly have regarded as the greatest gift anyone could give him.

May his memory be a blessing.

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