It was very close to Shabbos when my daughter informed me of the sudden passing of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, the Gadol HaDor. I was stunned. True, Rav Chaim was coming along in years, but his passing was unexpected. Many in Yerushalayim were in the midst of their Purim s’udos when the news began to circulate. The loudspeaker in Ramat Beit Shemesh, which normally plays uplifting music just prior to Shabbos, played sad music in light of the news. It happened so quickly that some hadn’t even heard the news until they came to shul on Friday night.
We had the entire Shabbos to begin to absorb the news. The moment Havdalah was over, the strategy sessions began. What would be the best way to get to the l’vayah? Car? Bus? Train? Even on a regular Sunday morning, the trains and buses are jam-packed with soldiers returning to their bases. Many people traveled to Bnei Brak already on Motza’ei Shabbos, moving in with family and friends, spending the night in shuls and yeshivos.
The police department had some time earlier developed a plan for this inevitable day. They announced the main road arteries that would be closed beginning as early as 6 a.m. on Sunday morning. Basically, the whole Gush Dan (Tel Aviv and surrounding cities) closed down for the day. Schools in the area learned on Zoom. The Train Authority asked that people stay home, if possible, at least until after the l’vayah. The army postponed new recruits to army bases. Chareidi chadarim (elementary schools) were instructed to cancel school for boys aged nine and older.
Very late on Motza’ei Shabbos, I received a phone call from the municipality with a recording requesting that nobody drive to the l’vayah. The recording stated that there would be chartered buses at locations throughout the city driving to the l’vayah beginning at six a.m. There was also a request that people behave properly.
With the tragedy of Meron in the background, as well as the l’vayah of HaRav Shmuel Wosner in 2015, which left two young men dead and dozens wounded due to the crowds, there was an undercurrent of concern as to whether this day would pass without tragedy. There were many who suffered from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) on the day of the l’vayah. The MDA (Magen David Adom- Israeli Emergency Medical Service) was prepared for a mass casualty event. Rav Zilberstein, the brother-in-law of Rav Chaim, broadcast a plea for everyone to act responsibly and fulfill the mitzvah of V’nishmartem m’od l’nafshoseichem – a person must guard his own health. On the radio, broadcasters discussed the challenges of maintaining safety in an event that was expected to have between 750,000 and 1,000,000 people in attendance. I myself was apprehensive and sent my men off with a list of safety guidelines.
The final decision was to travel by bus. My husband, son, and my husband’s chavrusa set out early Sunday morning to the buses, which were waiting and well-organized, only traveling with seated passengers. When they arrived in Bnei Brak, they found coffee stations with pastries set up on the streets by local residents who went out of their way to welcome their “guests” and make them feel comfortable. My husband noticed a sign, probably one of many, giving visitors an exact address of someone’s private home where they could go if they needed anything. The way the residents of Bnei Brak opened their homes to total strangers was heartwarming indeed. Am Yisrael was united in mourning. Even policemen were davening and learning in the Lederman Shul, Rav Chaim’s shul that was next door to his home.
After drinking a cup of coffee, the men entered a yeshivah that hung a sign showing visitors where to go for food and rest. After davening and learning together in that yeshivah, the men went out to participate in the l’vayah. Large screens were placed throughout the city for better viewing. The streets were most certainly crowded, but the situation was under control. The crowd listened to the T’hilim and hespeidim (eulogies) for one of the most extraordinary men of recent generations.
A number of people were sent to the hospital with minor injuries as a result of the procession of the l’vayah. But, baruch Hashem, overall, people were careful and the day ended well. The buses returned their passengers to their homes and Israel Railways provided extra trains for the unusually large number of passengers.
Rav Chaim was known for his mastery over kol haTorah kulah (the Torah in its entirety), his modesty, his lack of interest in physical pleasures and comforts, and his willingness to take from his valuable time to give a listening ear and encouragement to all who sought his counsel. Every 12 months, on Erev Pesach, Rav Chaim would make a siyum b’choros on the entire Torah. Rav Chaim was himself a b’chor. He would make a siyum on Shas Bavli, Shas Yerushalmi, Midrash Rabbah, Sifra, Sifrei, Tanchuma, Zohar, the Mishneh Torah, the Shulchan Aruch, and the works of several Rishonim [from Rebbetzin Kanievsky A Legendary Mother To All, by ArtScroll]. Since there are two Adars this year, he made this year’s siyum on the 14th day of Adar II, 12 months after the prior year’s siyum, but a month earlier than the regular date, the 14th of Nisan. He was zocheh to make his last siyum on Shushan Purim, the day before he died.
Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein spoke about the fact that Rav Chaim was not born a genius. He became the person he was through diligence, struggle, and total immersion in learning from a very young age. While not everyone can necessarily become a Rav Chaim Kanievsky, with the right motivation, determination, and commitment, we can further reach our potential and achieve greatness. This is one of the many lessons we can hold onto as we part from the Gadol HaDor.