Thursday, May 30, 2024

Rav Chaim zt”l

One day it was Purim, and all around the world Jews were celebrating. The next day, it was Tisha B’Av. The celebrations were forgotten. Purim was a distant memory.

“Shekulah missoson shel tzaddikim k’sreifas Bais Elokeinu” (Rosh Hashanah 18b). In a flash, we were bereft. Our leader was gone. Yesterday, he sat at his famed table upon which he had learned so much Torah and received and lifted up so many people. Yesterday, he welcomed people who came to bring him mishloach manos. Today, he was gone. There was no time to daven for him and for us. The gezeirah was sealed and carried out, and from orah, simcha, sasson and yekor, it was now choshech al pnei sehom.

Rav Chaim was taken to Shomayim. Our rebbi, the rebbi of Klal Yisroel, the Urim Vetumim of the generation, left us, and we barely had time to prepare for this awful moment and the vacuum his petirah created.

Rav Chaim. Wherever you went in the Jewish world, when you said Rav Chaim, everyone knew who you were referring to. If there was a question relating to Torah, Yahadus, chinuch and everything that mattered to a Yid, Rav Chaim had the answer. Readily accessible, he would also answer the many letters that were sent to him with questions of all types, often with one or two words.

Where to begin? Rav Chaim. The last word on everything that was going on in Klal Yisroel. On every halachic shailoh. On every public issue. The question was presented to Rav Chaim and what he said was final.

He was the paradigm of limud haTorah, of hasmodah, of yediah, of everything that was tied to Torah. He was the epitome, the apex, of what a person can reach. In our generation, in our world, there was a person who knew and was familiar with the entirety of Torah. We were able to see him, speak to him, ask him our questions, and seek out his brachos. We were able to be inspired anew every time we entered his room. To gaze upon him was a brocha, watching him as he learned undisturbed, moving through Shas or whatever sefer was in front of him, sliding his finger down the page line by line with an obvious familiarity.

Seeing that it was possible to reach such heights not only inspired us, but also obligated us in our lives. It is possible to really know everything. When a human devotes himself entirely to Torah, there is no barrier to attaining it all.

Hundreds of people would stand on line waiting to greet him and ask for a brocha or an eitzah. He would answer the simple shailos of regular people and the deepest, most entangled questions that the greatest rabbonim were unable to rule on.

His greatness was Torah. His life was Torah. Everything about him was Torah. Nothing else mattered to him outside of Torah.

He beheld gadlus baTorah of a rare stature. Kol roz lo anus lei. There was nothing he didn’t know, all of Torah on his fingertips.

He was the living embodiment of the posuk in Tehillim which states that man should be “k’eitz shasul al palgei mayim.” He was as a tree with deep and holy roots, “asher piryo yitein b’ito,” and everybody benefited from the fruits of his Torah and avodah.

For nine decades, he had little interest of anything outside of Torah. Every year, he would make a siyum on kol haTorah. People would ask him where a specific idea is found in Chazal and then watch in amazement as his mind worked its way through Bavli, Yerushalmi, Toseftos, all the Medrashim, Zohar, Tikkunei Zohar, and much else until he was able to locate the matter that was being sought. And if he didn’t find it, it didn’t exist.

A month ago, his talmid, Rav Eliyohu Mann, was our guest for a Shabbos meal. I asked him for some good stories. He told me that he met Rav Yehoshua Dovid Hartman, who published the sifrei Maharal with detailed footnotes, including commentary and marei mekomos. Rav Hartman told him that the Maharal cites a Chazal that techiyas hameisim will begin at the Meoras Hamachpeilah. He searched everywhere and was unable to find the Chazal. He asked many talmidei chachomim and none of them were able to cite the Maharal’s source.

One day, he met Rav Chaim as he was walking in the street. He went over to him and asked him his question. As they continued walking, after a few moments, he heard Rav Chaim say to himself, “In Bavli is dos nisht du. It’s not in Shas Bavli.” A few moments later, he said to himself, “In Yerushalmi is dos nisht du. It’s not in Shas Yerushalmi.” And so he went through all of the Medrashim. After one and a half minutes, Rav Chaim turned to Rav Hartman and said, “Es iz in Zohar. It is in the Zohar.”

The stories about Rav Chaim are not fables. They are true. And the people with whom they transpired readily confirm them. A man from our day walking down the street had the entirety of Torah on his fingertips. It was important to him, so he knew it. Had Rav Hartman asked him what street he was on, he would not have known. It wasn’t important.

Years ago, my son asked Rav Chaim’s son, Rav Shlomo Kanievsky, for a fascinating story about his father. “Vilst heren ah moifes? I’ll tell you a miracle,” he said. “Every day, when my mother serves him a meal, when he finishes, he asks her what he ate, so he will know which brocha achronah to make.”

Is that not a miracle? The same person who could whizz through Shas in one minute looking for something couldn’t remember what he had eaten two minutes before. It wasn’t important. The only thing that was important about his meal was the brachos.

People would lay out a shailoh and he would answer quickly, rarely giving explanations. His time was too precious. And everybody knew that when he spoke, it was the Torah speaking, and they followed him implicitly. His was the final word on every issue.

Thousands of his answers to every topic imaginable have been published in dozens of seforim, and as you peruse them, you grasp the greatness that has left us. On the same page, he can cite from memory a Gemara in Brachos, then a posuk in Chumash, then a Gemara in Sanhedrin, then a p’sak from the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, then a Gemara in Nedorim and Nozir, then a Tosefta in Shavuos, and then a selection from his monumental sefer Derech Emunah in Hilchos Terumos. He could say p’shat in a Rabi Akiva Eiger to one person, cite a Medrash to another, share a story from the Chazon Ish and a vort from the Chofetz Chaim, tell one person what to do as a segulah for his problem and tell another person that a certain segulah has no basis in Torah.

He literally changed the face of Klal Yisroel. He told so many shaven people to grow beards that he made a perceptible change in the look of the generation. And the change was more than skin deep. He added kedusha to the life of every person who went to see him. A change that had a ripple effect in communities around the world.

People would come to Rav Chaim for brachos and direction in life. The sick, the poor, and the barren would come to his home on Rechov Rashbam and wait for their turn with the gadol. Each person would receive a different response. Sometimes he said to follow the doctor, and to others he said that the doctor was incorrect in his prognosis. They could have been suffering from the same ailment, but one was told to grow a beard, one to stop wearing a watch, another to learn Maseches Shvi’is, and another to make Havdalah on wine. Other times, the responses were more striking. For most, the life-altering conversations were invariably short, for there was a long line of people waiting and besides, he wanted to return to his learning.

Nobody asked why, how he knew, or why he told them one thing and the other guy with the same issue a different thing. For 99.9% of the people who came, if Rav Chaim said to do it, they did it. But sometimes people found what he said hard to accept. He told a single boy who asked for a brocha for a shidduch to grow a beard. “But I can’t,” said the boy. “It’s impossible. It’s just too hard socially. Is there something else I can do?” The response was harsh. “If you don’t grow a beard, you will remain single your entire life.”

Once, when going through a difficult issue, I asked him for a brocha. He leaned over and folded up my hat brim. “If you go like this, everything will be fine.” I kept the brim on my hat up the way he had placed it, and when the issue was resolved, I purchased a nice brim-up hat and traveled to Bnei Brak to thank him for the brocha. He looked at me and the hat and smiled. “Azoi shein. Let’s see how you look with your peyos out.” I complied, of course, wary as I was that he would tell me to keep them out. A wide smile broke out on his face. “Oy, zey zenen azoi shein. Foon vemen shemst du? You look so nice like that.”

Since he didn’t tell me to keep them out, I returned them to their regular place, but I felt like a million dollars.

A story was told that a young bochur came to him complaining that it was hard for him to learn. He asked what he should do to help his hasmodah. The story went that Rav Chaim told the boy that whenever he encountered difficulty learning, he should go to the mikvah. Someone asked Rav Chaim to explain why he had suggested that as a solution to the boy’s problem. Rav Chaim responded that he didn’t remember such a conversation, but if it happened and that was what he said, it was because that was what was placed in his mouth min haShomayim.

How did he know? Nobody asked. He knew.

Was it with the koach haTorah? Was it ruach hakodesh?

Rav Chaim’s ruach hakodesh wasn’t only relegated to everyday matters. It affected his learning. The story is well known that when he was learning the halachos of the kosher status of locusts, since he hadn’t seen a grasshopper, he was unable to fully understand the halacha. It so happened that a locust flew into his room and landed on the Gemara he was studying. Rav Chaim was able to examine the creature, and when he was satisfied that he had a full comprehension of the halachos, the creature picked itself up and flew out the window.

When reflecting upon this story, it appeared to me that Rav Chaim’s learning and understanding of Torah were so choshuv that min haShomayim he was brought a locust to enable him to properly study and determine the halacha.

In fact, Rav Chaim wrote a sefer on the sugyos and halachos of eating locusts called Karnei Chagovim. In the first chapter of the sefer, he discusses the shitah that it is a mitzvas asei to study those halachos. (The basis for that obligation is a posuk in this week’s parsha, Vayikra 11:47.]

What does this have to do with ruach hakodesh?

Rav Chaim’s uncle, the Chazon Ish, writes that “ruach hakodesh is when a person studies Torah with great effort and much hard work, and he gains added knowledge and understanding… This is ruach hakodesh that rests with all those who labor in the study of Torah. …And how did Rabi Yehudah know about all the plants that grow around the world? This is not a question, for Hashem reveals His knowledge to those who fear him.”

We can similarly say that Rav Chaim’s knowledge of locusts was revealed to him min haShomayim. His father-in-law Rav Elyashiv said that Rav Chaim’s gadlus in Torah was such that he attained a level of Divine assistance that was found among Rishonim.

The Raavad writes in several places that the explanation he wrote came to him min haShomayim (Toras Kohanim, Parshas Acharei Mos, Baalei Hanefesh, Shaar Hamayim, and others). He writes in his introduction to Maseches Idiyos, “In these matters, I had no rebbi or teacher, but they are from Hashem Himself.

Similarly, Rashi writes (Yechezkel 42:3) when elucidating the prophecy of Yechezkel regarding the third Bais Hamikdosh, “I had no rebbi or helper [in my understanding] of the building. Rather, this is what was shown to me min haShomayim.”

Talmidei chachomim such as Rav Dov Landau have said that there is no doubt that when Rav Chaim wrote his sefer Derech Emunah, there was a malach with him.

Such is the ruach hakodesh of people like Rav Chaim. We don’t know how many have attainted that level, and throughout the ages many definitely have, but the fact that Rav Chaim was with us in this generation until last week obligates us all. We cannot say that such things cannot be expected of us, because we live in a depraved world, in a society where it is thought that such goals are no longer attainable. Rav Chaim was a living demonstration that gadlus in Torah, avodah and middos tovos is achievable to someone who really wants to achieve it.

Every night he would awake for Tikun Chatzos, he would learn one page of Zohar, one chapter of Tehillim, one chapter of Tanach, three pages of Mishnah Berurah, three chapters of Rambam, five pages of Shulchan Aruch, eight dapim of Talmud Bavli, eight dapim of Talmud Yerushalmi, a certain amount of Tosefta, besides for the other seforim he learned.

Impossible, you say? But he did it. Not only did he fill that quota every day, but he also said davened, ate three meals, was sandek at brisos daily, visited his parents daily, visited his children from time to time, attended simchos and functions (rarely), wrote seforim, responded to letters from around the world, and dedicated much time to receive people, answering their questions and providing them with chizuk and direction.

How did he do it? It was his primary interest in life. Anything that wasn’t related to Torah was quickly forgotten. He forgot most things except for Torah, which he was fluent in. He remembered because he cared. He remembered because it’s all he cared about. He remembered because he followed what he wrote in Sefer Hazikaron, a collection of divrei Chazal on the levels a person must attain in order to be able to retain the Torah he studies.

Were Torah as important to us as it was to him, were we to use our time to study and review Torah, we could also become great. If we wouldn’t occupy our time with nonsense, if we would not waste brain space on futile things, we could surely become better and holier than we are now.

Rav Chaim never held any position, and that was by choice, not by chance. His father, the great gaon known to all as The Steipler, told him that he was placed in this world to write and publish seforim. He told Rav Chaim in his younger years that he should not accept any position, lead any organization, sign any proclamations, or accept any salary for his learning, for that would ultimately take away from his learning and cause more outside obligations. It was only many decades later, when Klal Yisroel sought a leader and a Torah giant to turn to, that Rav Chaim acquiesced to become involved in communal matters.

Money was always anathema to him. He didn’t respect it and it was of no use to him. His son once told me that a philanthropist wanted to repay Rav Chaim for his assistance and expressed that he was going to present him with a $250,000 check. Rav Chaim would have none of it. He didn’t want the money and didn’t even want to touch the check. It didn’t talk to him, and he even feared touching that large a sum, lest he be tainted in some way.

His greatest joy was Torah – when he learned, when he saw others learning, and even when he was presented with a new sefer. Although his home was filled with bookcases loaded with seforim and the chance of him studying from the new sefer was slim, the joy of seeing that another sefer was published, and that more Torah was being studied and spread, overwhelmed him with joy.

Someone once told me that the biggest smile was seen on Rav Chaim’s face when a mechaber came and presented him with a new sefer that he just published. So, when I published a sefer on Chumash, I went to his home to present it to him. The fellow who advised me to go there was correct. It is difficult to express the simcha that came over him. He went through the sefer as I sat there and was most effusive in his comments and brachos.

Rav Chaim was niftar on Shushan Purim, the day following the day upon which he would make his annual siyum upon completing his regimen of kol haTorah kulah in a leap year, such as this.

It was providential, as well, that he passed away during a Shmittah year, because although he was proficient in all areas of Torah, there were some areas in which he took a leading role. His uncle, the Chazon Ish, was a leader in restoring shemiras Shmittah to Eretz Yisroel, and Rav Chaim worked to strengthen the knowledge and observance of Shmittah.

Rav Chaim would often discuss the concept that Klal Yisroel will merit the geulah in the zechus of observing Shmittah. Although his dedication to the mitzvah was because it was a mitzvah, when encouraging fundraising efforts to help observant farmers, a campaign that the Chazon Ish initiated, he would remind the activists that they are helping to bring Moshiach through their efforts.

Rav Chaim saw that the power of the brocha the Torah reserves for Shmittah observance is so great that he would advise thousands of people who came to him searching for brachos and specific yeshuos to undertake to study Maseches Shvi’is.

Many books have already been published with fascinating anecdotes involving Rav Chaim, and many more can be expected to come out now that he has left us. Many thousands of people sought him for his brachos and guidance, and they all have stories to tell. We have all heard some and will be hearing and reading many more.

The stories should be a source of chizuk to us in our daily lives and struggles, and to our emunah, as they demonstrate the greatness of Torah and Klal Yisroel, and how blessed we were to have had access to such a timeless gadol from whom to benefit spiritually and physically. As the stories of his greatness multiply and spread, we will increasingly realize that he was much greater than we ever could have imagined, and the loss we mourn will be increasingly larger and larger.

Rav Chaim’s passing leaves the world a darker, sadder, emptier, and more dangerous place than it was when he was alive. We all need to improve in the areas in which he excelled to help bring back some of the missing light and Torah and yashrus and middos tovos and humility and dikduk b’mitzvos. We can all improve. We can all be nicer, learn more, daven better, be better people, and work to make a positive difference in the lives of others, so that we can help bring about the coming of the Moshiach Rav Chaim told us was imminent, making the world a better place in which to be until the moment arrives. May it be speedily in our day.

Tehei nishmaso tzerurah betzror hachaim.



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