By Shmuel Katz
The loss of a gadol of the stature of HaRav Ovadia Yosef is definitely a significant event, no matter where you are. In last week’s paper, there were several articles, written by people more qualified than I, about his life and memory. So I decided to wait until this week to share more of the experience of being here in Israel at such a time.
The yeshiva was on a tiyul at Ammunition Hill in Yerushalayim when the news came out at around 1 p.m. We had actually intended to head into Meah Shearim to continue the tiyul at a workshop of a sofer stam. The sofer quickly told us not to come; as he put it, “Meah Shearim is about to totally shut down.”
With the plans to give the guys the night off already, we decided to simply end the day after the tour of Ammunition Hill and allow them, along with the madrichim, the opportunity to participate in the levayah as much as they could. Not all the guys felt comfortable being part of what eventually became a large crowd (leading to several injuries).
The folks at Ammunition Hill interrupted our tour to advise us to cut it short. Apparently, expecting a flood of incoming mourners, City Hall had started to implement emergency measures and had announced plans to begin closing roads and public transportation several hours before the levayah.
Our mashgiach, Rav Shmuel Dovid Chait, called me to tell me about a bus he had gotten on in the city. The driver was clearly driving off his route and Rabbi Chait asked what his detoured route was for that day. The driver laughed and told him that he had no idea! He was simply going to drive wherever traffic would flow and the bus would get to wherever it got.
I had a friend who posted a photo of the parking lot of his office building, which was totally blocked with traffic. The street outside was not as congested as the parking lot was. Apparently, building management had advised everyone inside to leave early in anticipation of huge incoming traffic that evening. So, the entire building closed down, everyone got into their cars, and they all tried to exit at the same time.
People used all sorts of methods to try to get to Yerushalayim as well. With the highways packed and the line to catch a public bus a mile long, one of my neighbors decided to take the train. Unfortunately for him, the train goes to Malcha, at the opposite end of the city from the levayah. With no cabs to be seen at the train station, he decided to walk a bit into town and try to find one.
He and some others found a cab a couple of blocks from the station, but the cabbie refused to go anywhere near the area of the levayah. No matter how much they tried to persuade him to drive until the beginning of traffic and then let them out, he refused, saying that once he reached the traffic, even the beginning of it, he would end up stuck for hours. Eventually he dropped them off in the center of town and they walked the rest of the way in.
On the interpersonal side, it is over a week later and we are still reacting to the loss here. Rav Ovadia was not simply the Sephardi leading rabbi, he was revered throughout Israeli society. Religious, not religious, Sephard, Ashkenaz—it made no difference. Our rosh yeshiva gave a hesped in the yeshiva. Our son Moshe’s school has a memorial display and has dedicated all their learning this year in his memory. No matter where you turn, signs of mourning are clearly evident.
And then will come the inevitable political posturing and haymaking by the professional politicians. With municipal elections coming next week, it is a virtual certainty that any politician who can capitalize upon his memory will do so. It happened in Bet Shemesh before he was even buried, with our current mayor posting a video showing himself with Rav Ovadia to show that he was favored by him.
The loss will continue to be felt, as Shas members jockey for power, authority, and position in the absence of their spiritual leader. And of course, with each generation, our leaders grow more and more diminished, with no one to fill the shoes of another leader lost to us. v
Shmuel Katz is the executive director of Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah (www.migdalhatorah.org), a new gap-year yeshiva. Shmuel, his wife Goldie, and their six children made aliyah in July of 2006. Before making aliyah, he was the executive director of the Yeshiva of South Shore in Hewlett. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.