There is not a living celebrity, politician, athlete, or entertainer who has had more selfies taken with them than Rav Chaim
Many years ago, this magazine published a yearly offering of Purim satire, a few pages of parody disguised as news.
This was back when laughing at yourself was okay, before people took to the new sport of claiming victimhood and announcing how offended they were by whatever joke it was.
Covid, it turns out, steals not just the sense of smell, but also the sense of humor, and these days, it’s risky to make jokes. The Kichels do it, but they’re the Kichels, and also, they probably don’t read the letters to the editor.
Anyhow, in one of those Purim parodies we published years ago, we included a joke item about a Madame Tussaud’s-like wax museum featuring figures of gedolei Yisrael. This museum would provide a win-win solution for Klal Yisrael: Tourists could get the pictures and poses they wanted, while the gedolim could continue doing what they wanted, which is to learn Torah.
I don’t remember any outrage about it, but I still have regrets that it was published. Because these days, I have a different take on those pictures, and it goes against a popular meme.
The meme first surfaced during those painful days six months ago when we lost a gadol hador, and I saw it again last week as yet another general fell.
In the days following the petirah of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, everyone’s profile pictures and WhatsApp statuses seemed to be jointly devoted to sharing their individual variation of the same theme: that enduring image of you, your child, your einekel, whoever was fortunate — hat brim up, wristwatch hidden away, face colored with awe — slightly bent in front of the radiant man in the black cardigan.
Then, because people tend to make jokes whether it’s appropriate or not, someone created a meme that said, For those who don’t have a “me and Maran” picture, send us your photo and we will photoshop you in, so that you aren’t left out.
Last week, many of our Israeli colleagues sent pictures of themselves with Chacham Shalom Cohen and again, the cynics created a “Chacham Shalom v’ani” gemach. Same joke, different tragedy.
And it got me thinking about how we mourn and what we’re mourning.
The Ra’avad wrote Sefer Hakabbalah to delegitimize the Karaim and their doctrine, and among the topics he addresses is the difference between their leaders and our gedolim.
You do not find, he says, a single Karaite leader who ever penned a work of “nechamah,” comfort to the people. Their best and brightest shared ideology, perspective, and opinion — but never comfort.
Now look at what our gedolim are busy with, or think of any encounter you ever had inside the room of a gadol.
Sure, gedolim share Torah and hashkafah, but the essence of their conversations with ordinary people is marked by pure empathy, compassion, and encouragement. Theirs rooms are havens where people unburden themselves.
Rav Chaim Brisker said that Jewish ears are made holy by listening to the tzaros of other Yidden, by empathizing with their heartache and disappointment, and thus, somewhat lightening the peckel they bear.
The flood of pictures that followed our gedolim’s petiros is the greatest proof of their greatness. The images show so many smiles, so much laughter, men luminous enough that the faces of those speaking with them reflect some of that glow.
The pictures are not a flex or a look-at-me ego boost, they are a hesped!
Look at who our leaders are, these pictures say. Look at what these people, masters of Torah, lovers of Torah, pillars of tefillah, are busy with.
There is not a living celebrity, politician, athlete, or entertainer who has had more selfies taken with them than Rav Chaim, a Yid who somehow got more done in a few minutes of his day than many of us get done in a month.
So let the people mourn, and if getting lost in the old pictures on their phone until they find the one of that day they visited Bnei Brak — before the jeeping in the desert, but after Rimon with the nieces in seminary — is the pathway that brings them to remember and feel our collective loss, then the image itself is a eulogy too.
And if the cottage industry of gedolim-tour facilitators irks you, it shouldn’t. Besides the fact that the job of facilitator is hard work — meet you, make you feel like a VIP, know which back door leads to which apartment and which einekel to call, ensure that the camera is not just working, but that the picture is flattering — the service they provide goes to the heart of Yiddishkeit.
The resulting national photo album is testimony not just to the generosity of spirit of the shepherds, but also to the loyalty and reverence of the flock. Klal Yisrael, it’s been said, has a “chush hareiach,” a sense of smell that leads them to their gedolim, and no primaries, data, polling, or slick marketing can push a candidate forward in this rarified sphere.
The people have always known, and they still know: When they find the real thing, they go, even though there are a million excuses not to.
Tickets are expensive. The lines are so long. The gabbaim are too pushy. Who says it will even be open?
The pictures? They’re a way of saying, “Look, we found the time and money to make it happen, and we are forever blessed.”
Whether or not you show them in public is your choice, but either way, they are part of your identity.
Part of our identity, the reason we’re still here.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 926)
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