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 sefardic factions that have immigrated to Israel since the creation of the state. He was a faithful shepherd where Jews of all walks of life felt loved and welcomed to gain direction in life, seek blessings, converse in Torah or just to see the levels of piety that a Jew in 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 Hashem will enlighten our eyes and bring along an heir to his great legacy to lead the next generation of Sefardic Jews.
Usually in order to memorialize someone the writer needs to have a mastery or at least substantial biographical knowledge of the person they are remembering. However, despite the dearth of knowledge that I posses with regards to the life of Reb Ovadia, seeing the impact that has been created with his loss I felt compelled to eulogize him and 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 Parsha.
The Parsha commences, these are the chronicles of Noach, Noach was a righteous man, complete in his generation, G-d walked with Noach. Noach bore three sons, Shem, Cham and Yapheth. All the commentaries seek to understand why the verse couldn’t omit the righteousness of Noach and instead list his progeny which would succeed in qualifying its opening statement? Rashi explains, “Ikkar toldoseihem shel tzaddikim maasim 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 towards 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 is 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 or relativity. Taking the infinite light of G-d and allowing it to influence the finite world. With over forty-one published works on Halacha, aggada 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.
In fact, looking ahead to this coming Parsha we find another a remez to Rav Ovadia, whose memory pervades are hearts and minds. The Parsha 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 moved, along with his family to what was then Palestine. As a teenager, Rav Ovadia learned and excelled in the Yeshiva of Rav Ezra Attiya.
In the year 1947 he was hired by Rav Aron Choueka to teach in the Yeshiva Ahava V’achvah 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 Halachik structure, particularly in the area of Kashrus, opposition reigned and Rav Ovasdia returned to Israel where he learned in the Yeshiva of Rav Zvi Pesach Frank. In 1973 he was elected along with Rabbi Shlomo Goren as Rishon Le’Zion where under his guidance he catapulted the immigrant Sephardic factions in Israel to be a force to be reckoned with, where he founded the Shas political movement which remained an active and influential party in the Israeli parliament until the most recent election where they were ousted from the Israeli government.
So in a sense, having been born in Iraq and having spent to time in Cairo, then coming to Israel and building a burgeoning Sephardic force and leading them in a new State, not just to survive but to thrive in the way that they have over the past half a century the way they have is 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 a litmus test of a true leader is when those that have opposed you come to pay respects and wish you farewell despite a long history of opposition, that is a good indication of a true leader.
In a Sefer Vaya’an Shmuel, authored by Reb Ovadia zt”l, in a Hesped that he wrote for Rav Moshe Idan he writes something on behalf of Rabbi Idan of Bnei Brak that applies to him as well and would be fitting at this time to note.
Among the children that survived him, Rav Idan left a son that was a Rosh Kollel ande another son that was an accomplished Talmid Chochom 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 becomes to connect with the deceased in a way that will acquire adjusting to not having him here at our behest.
Chazal write, 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 could connect to the Tzaddik too is through the written word.
So while many were used to entering his room and 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 eulogy that I touched upon above and the amount of people that were strongly influenced by him during his life and impacted with 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 bachaim. 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.