Officially there are close to seven million Jews in Israel. Nearly one million of them poured into Bnei Brak to attend the funeral of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, and most of the rest probably feel some measure of guilt that they didn’t.
Think about that. It’s staggering.
There is not a single rock star, movie star, professional athlete, or other celebrity on the planet whose loss would be felt by such a high percentage of ordinary people. They have tens of millions of “followers” who idolize them, but that’s the thing – they are idols, not the real deal. Idols are a dime a dozen and are easily replaced when they fade from glory or pass from this world.
Even during their lifetimes, they have short a period of greatness during their prime years, after which they coast on the fame they achieved. If they pass away in their nineties, very few people outside of historians will be moved by their death. After all, it will have been many decades since they were relevant. The longer a secular celebrity lives, the fewer people will care when he dies. His true death occurs when a younger star eclipses him, and his physical passing is a mere technicality.
Rav Chaim Kanievsky was 94 years old. He was not eclipsed by younger rabbis. If a Jew studies in his entire life what Rav Kanievsky studied in a single year, he will be considered a great scholar.
Torah scholars do not retire after a few years of greatness and then rest on their laurels. They continue to learn and grow, making the most of every precious moment until their very last. Even if physical frailty prevents them from public activities – even if they can barely speak – they remain relevant just as they were decades earlier in their physical primes. Probably more.
This is why a million Jews went to the funeral of an elderly sage. They understand that a Torah sage cannot be replaced. They understand that Rav Kanievksy achieved a level of Torah greatness that is simply unfathomable to ordinary people. They understand that everything there is to know about everything is contained in the Torah, and Rav Kanievsky absorbed about as much of this divine wisdom as is humanly possible in our time.
However much or little Torah the average Jew knows, they understand that this is what it’s all about. That’s why Israel stopped. Despite the viciously anti-Torah ruling class, the ongoing assaults against authentic Judaism, the sanctity of the Jewish family, and God as our King, Israel stopped for an elderly Torah sage like it would stop for no one else.
Can you imagine a million people out of seven million attending the funeral of any military or political leader, past or present? They are fortunate if so many people aren’t glad to be rid of them, let alone mourn their passing. They are fortunate if people care at all.
No world leader will ever know honor like this. In some countries they force people to attend funerals and pretend to mourn. That isn’t honor; it’s the biggest disgrace. These “mighty rulers” are pathetic. An old man with no official position, who lived in a simple apartment, had no worldly pursuits, and devoted his life to Torah study earned the respect of the masses. No guns required.
A moment like this is a rare teaching opportunity for the world. Most people spend their lives chasing money, fame, power, material rewards. They dream of greatness, but they don’t know what greatness really is. They want to be rich and famous, but rich and famous people are almost universally miserable. The more they stuff themselves, the more empty they feel, the more they need just to feel momentary satisfaction.
Celebrities have many fans and followers, but the masses loathe them even as they envy them. When a celebrity has a downfall, as they so often do, the masses cannot kick them fast enough. It isn’t the person they love – it is the money and fame. Shallow people idolizing other shallow people who have more shallow things.
The passing of Rav Kanievsky is a reminder to the world what real greatness is. Greatness isn’t found on big screens, big stages, or social media. It doesn’t conform to the latest trends or concern itself with the faux morality of the day. It doesn’t seek attention or approval.
Greatness is studying Torah, teaching Torah, living a life that is guided by the Torah. Greatness is seeing every moment as an opportunity to get closer to God, impart wisdom, blessings, and assistance to others, and hasten the redemption.
We can’t all live an ascetic lifestyle completely devoted to Torah study. But we can recognize that true greatness is there, aspire to it, and do a little better.