By Yochanan Gordon
With the passing of Chacham Ovadia Yosef, zecher tzaddik vekadosh liv’rachah, we mourn the loss of a visionary, an encyclopedic scholar, and a leader and tzaddik of the highest order. Until the age of 93, Rav Ovadia served as the Rishon Letzion for 40 years, uniting the variant Sephardic factions that have immigrated to Israel since the creation of the state. He was a faithful shepherd, under whose guidance Jews of all walks of life felt loved and welcomed to gain direction in life, seek blessings, converse in Torah, or just see the levels of piety that a Jew is capable of achieving in this world. While the pain is still raw and the void so immeasurably large, we have faith that as the sun sets, the sun rises and that Hashem will enlighten our eyes and bring along an heir to his great legacy to lead the next generation of Sephardic Jews.
Usually, in order to memorialize someone, the writer needs to have a mastery or at least a substantial biographical knowledge of the person they are remembering. However, despite the dearth of knowledge that I possess with regards to the life of Reb Ovadia, seeing the impact of his loss, I felt compelled to eulogize him and would be remiss if I failed to do so. So, you wonder, how does someone with a lack of biographical knowledge of the deceased memorialize him? Let’s take a look at last week’s parashah.
The parashah commences, “These are the chronicles of Noach: Noach was a righteous man, complete in his generation; with G‑d did Noach walk. Noach fathered three sons: Shem, Cham, and Yapheth.” All the commentaries seek to understand why Noach’s righteousness is inserted into the statement of his progeny. Rashi explains, “Ikkar toldoseihem shel tzaddikim ma’asim tovim.” So therefore I felt that it would suffice to list a couple of teachings and virtues of Chacham Ovadia, which would serve as a fitting memorial for someone whose life was devoted to teaching others.
In Bereishis, the verse says, “These are the chronicles of heaven and earth behibar’am.” Some commentators explain that the word behibar’am has the same letters as b’Avraham and some say b’hei baram, meaning that G‑d created this world through the letter hei. The letter hei in Kabbalah represents hispashtus, whereas the letter yud corresponds to tzimtzum. The concept of hispashtus takes that which is concealed and breaks it down to the point of comprehension, thus taking the infinite light of G‑d and allowing it to influence the finite world. With over 41 published works on halacha, aggadah, and drush, Rav Ovadia was actively involved in the concept of hispashtus, spreading the ohr haganuz—which was hidden for tzaddikim in the Torah—to the masses.
Looking ahead to this coming parashah, we find another a remez to Rav Ovadia, whose memory pervades our hearts and minds. The parashah opens, “And G‑d said to Avram, go from your land, your birthplace, and from the house of your father to the land that I will show you.” “And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great and you will be a blessing.”
Rav Ovadia was born in 1920 to his parents, Rav Yaakov and Georgia, in Baghdad, Iraq. At the age of four, in 1924, he and his family moved to what was then Palestine. As a teenager, Rav Ovadia learned and excelled in the Yeshiva of Rav Ezra Attiya.
In 1947, he was hired by Rav Aharon Choueka to teach in the Yeshiva Ahavah VeAchvah in Cairo, Egypt, as well as serve in the rabbinical court of Rav Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel. As a result of a much-disorganized halachic structure, particularly in the area of kashrus, opposition reigned and Rav Ovadia returned to Israel, where he learned in the Yeshiva of Rav Zvi Pesach Frank. In 1973, he was elected Sephardic Chief Rabbi, or Rishon Letzion; through his guidance, he transformed the immigrant Sephardic factions in Israel into a force to be reckoned with. He founded the Shas political movement, which has long been an active and influential party in the Israeli parliament. So, in a sense, Rav Ovadia’s having been born in Iraq, spent time in Cairo, moved to Israel, built a burgeoning Sephardic force, and led them in a new State, not just to survive but to thrive as they have . . . all this can be seen as a fulfillment of, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great and you will be a blessing.”
History was made with the numbers that came to say farewell to Rav Ovadia, zt’l, with an estimated 800,000 attendees. To put that into perspective, it’s more than ten percent of Israel’s Jewish population. In reading some of the excerpts of comments made by public figures in and around Jewish life in Israel, I saw comments from people who have taken sharp criticism from Rav Ovadia. You could say that the proof of a true leader is that those who oppose him come to pay respects.
In Sefer Vaya’an Shmuel, authored by Reb Ovadia, zt’l, in a hesped that he wrote for Rav Moshe Idan of Bnei Brak, he writes something that applies to himself as well, and would be fitting to note at this time.
Among the children who survived him, Rav Idan left a son who was a rosh kollel, and another son who was an accomplished talmid chacham in his own right. Then Rav Ovadiah writes, “A person was not born for himself. Chazal write, ‘Man was born to toil (le’omol).’” Reb Ovadiah asks, “What does amal mean? Amal is roshei teivos lilmod al menas le’lamed. It is not enough to just learn and amass knowledge; it is our duty to ensure that others are taught as well.”
We say in Krias Shema every day, “And love G‑d your Lord” but how does one love G‑d? What should we say to him: “You are my friend, my beloved?” What is it that we could say to G‑d that will express our love for him? If we go a bit further in the prayer, it describes explicitly the expression of love that G‑d expects from those that truly love him. G‑d says, if you truly love me, “teach your children.” Veshinantam levanecha . . . train them to follow in My path, for G‑d and his Torah are one.
At times like this, when we are bereft of a leader and moral compass of this magnitude, who has guided so many in every aspect of their lives, the challenge is to connect with the deceased in a way that will acquire adjusting to not having him here.
Chazal write that the word Anochi is roshei teivos, “ana nafshi, ksavis yehavis.” In other words, Chazal say tzaddikim are compared to the Creator, and just as it is so that G‑d invested His essence in the Aseres Haddibros—specifically, in the word Anochi—the way through which we can connect to the tzaddik is also through the written word.
So while many were used to entering his room, experiencing his holy countenance, and receiving his counsel and blessings, now we will be required to get to know him through his Torah and through following the rich legacy that he has left us.
Taking a look at the biography that I touched upon above and the amount of people who were strongly influenced by him during his life and affected by his loss, we see someone whose entire life was given over to help others. So certainly, if we become less self-absorbed and more focused on helping others, we will be following his legacy and will in turn keep his legacy alive. As the famous Gemara says, “Mah zaroh bachayim af hu bachayim.” May the merit of Rav Ovadia protect us and may he petition G‑d on high to bring an end to this bitter exile and bring the final redemption. Yehei zichro baruch. v