By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
They came from everywhere, from every corner of the country.
Some closed their Gemaros, some their school books, and others their falafel stores. Then they set out on their way and converged on Yeshivat Porat Yosef in Geulah.
They walked miles, the length of K’vish Ramot, from the entrance to the city, from near and from far. They abandoned their cars, busses and packages to join with the multitudes forming a sea of people mournfully parting from a beloved, affectionate, leader. They flocked from everywhere and in every type of dress to bid farewell to the towering figure who gave an entire community a reason to hold their heads high.
Who was he? Who was this man who drew approximately one million people to his levaya? Who was this man who touched so many? What was his power? What set him apart? How did he live his life? What did he do to earn the largest funeral in the country’s history?
It is hard to visualize and contemplate the sheer magnitude of the number: one million people. The entire Yerushalayim was crowded with people walking, mourning and participating in the levaya of Rav Ovadiah Yosef zt”l. Police begged people to stay away. They warned of the danger to life caused by the sheer number of people being squeezed into spaces and roads that could not accommodate them.
Hechzir atarah leyoshnah is the phrase that best depicts the life mission of Chacham Ovadia Yosef. It wasn’t merely the political slogan of his Shas party, but a statement that went to the essence of a giant.
It was a halachic mandate, a drive and commitment to bring back the centrality of “Maran the Bais Yosef” to Sefardic life. After he succeeded in bringing back traditional halachic observance to the masses, Rav Ovadiah forged on.
He dreamed of a generation of Sefardic bnei Torah, yeshivos, kollelim and genuine talmidei chachomim. He established the movement that would include kindergartens and day schools, mikvaos and mosdos, giving the substance of Yahadus to the people – all the people.
As he was accomplishing all that, the visionary trailblazer scaled the heights of Torah knowledge, imbibing the sacred air of the daled amos shel halacha all day, every day.
Rav Ovadiah never lost the touch and feel that enabled him to relate to the people – his people. Oz vechedvah bimkomo. Visits to his room, attending his shiurim, and meeting him were experiences of sheer joy. His warmth, humor and delight in other Jews were things to behold. He was a master of Torah and a master of ahavas Yisroel.
Rav Ovadiah Yosef was a simple man who lived a simple life. He grew up poor. He was poor as a bochur and poor after his marriage. He came from a simple family. His father ran a small makolet (grocery), yet he rose to become a great gaon and manhig.
He spoke at a party his children arranged in honor of his and his wife’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. His wife, Rabbanit Margalit, was already ill; she passed away shortly thereafter. As she sat there in a wheelchair connected to an oxygen tank, he spoke of “the kindness of her youth.” He recalled the time way back when she was saving for their first piece of furniture, an aron, or closet, in which to hang clothing.
One day, he told her of his dream to publish one of his notebooks of chiddushei Torah. The young wife took her savings, forfeiting her dream of obtaining furniture, and gave him the money so he could print the sefer.
When the sefer was published, the poor couple rejoiced at their good fortune. That sefer was the beginning of the journey, acquainting a nation of scholars with the brilliant young Sefardi.
Torah mitoch hadchak endures. If there was a chorus heard throughout the long and productive life of Chacham Ovadiah, it was his song of hasmadah, of limud haTorah, of love for Torah. His desire to teach and spread Torah, coupled with his love of Jews, enabled him to teach masses of Jews and bring back hundreds of thousands to the ways of their forefathers.
As the star of this young chacham rose, the requests began to pour in: “Rabbeinu, teach us.” He acquiesced to all, traveling to speak to a crowd of ten, a hundred or a thousand. It made no difference. If Jews wanted to learn and become inspired, he was there for them. He spoke their language, the jargon of the simple working people, using humor and parables to make his point. This was a man versed in all of Shas, poskim, teshuvos, Rishonim, Acharonim and modern-day seforim, yet it wasn’t beneath him to tell stories and simple vertlach.
He lived in the world of Tannaim, Amoraim and Geonim, yet he always had a pleasant comment for storekeepers, vendors, taxi drivers and the common folk he passed in the street. As recently as fifteen years ago, he would walk along Rechov Hakablan and stop to greet this one, answer that one, and inquire how a third one was feeling.
His love of Torah, combined with his hasmadah and brilliance, led him on a path to greatness.
He genuinely cared about people, and as much as he loved to learn and write Torah, he loved the people and the love was returned.
A young man related that his mother passed away when he was seven years old. The family lived in Har Nof and Rav Ovadiah heard of the tragedy. For the next two years, Rav Ovadiah made a point of bringing the boy and his eight-year-old brother with him to his seat in the beit knesset every Shabbos morning. He sat one boy on his lap and the other boy in the seat next to him. When davening was over, he would invite them to come to his house in the afternoon, at which time he went out of his way to make the two yesomim feel warm and welcome.
He wasn’t only a parent to those two yesomim whom he barely knew. He was the avi hayesomim of a dor yasom.
His son, Rav Dovid, related in his hesped that fourteen years ago, Rav Ovadiah was feeling unwell and was rushed to the hospital. After examining him, the doctors found that he required immediate surgery to clear a heart blockage.
Rav Ovadiah’s response was to ask to be taken home for three hours. Aryeh Deri, who had accompanied him, asked why he wanted to return home instead of preparing for the vital surgery. The ailing rav answered that he was in the middle of writing a teshuvah permitting an agunah to marry.
“I am worried about that agunah,” he said. “Who knows if I will survive the surgery? If I don’t, who will care for her? Who will worry for her? I want to return home to complete writing the teshuvah before undergoing the surgery.”
Such was his worry for others. Such was his care for every Jew. Such was his dedication to utilize his position to help people.
The Creator plants giants of spirit in each generation. They tower above others, teaching and spreading Torah, and providing leadership and direction.
The great gaon and posek, Rav Ovadiah Yosef, was one of those rare, exalted souls. He was a builder of Torah. He built and led a generation of Sefardic Jewry, and that is no exaggeration.
Ashkenazim are all too familiar with the Holocaust that destroyed Jewish life in Europe and killed millions of our brothers and sisters. Institutions, shuls, yeshivos and schools – the spiritual heartbeat of generations – were all but wiped out, consumed in the smoke of Hitler’s crematoria.
Those lucky few who survived were mostly broken and depressed souls. They had lost everything – their loved ones, their friends, their communities and everything they had known. Many gave up on rebuilding anything that would even vaguely resemble the thriving spiritual centers that had been destroyed. They feared that they would lose their children to the sea of assimilation in the new country. They weren’t sure if it would be possible to recreate the kehillos they left behind in Europe. They didn’t dream that their children would one day learn in yeshivos, kollelim and Bais Yaakov schools.
Yet, today the Torah way of life flourishes. The rebirth is thanks to a handful of heroic Torah giants and builders who refused to give up. We are all familiar with their names and accomplishments.
Sefardic Jewry, largely unaffected by Hitler’s Holocaust, suffered its own turmoil and was uprooted and transplanted in a strange new land. Sefardim had lived lives of piety, led by holy chachamim, producing great gaonim and tzaddikim whose Torah we all study and whose words we live by.
Taking advantage of the beautiful, innate temimus of Sefardic Jewry, Zionists and secularists opened schools and used many sly, deceptive methods to tear those Jews away from their heritage.
With the first stirrings of Zionism, their Arab hosts began turning on the Jews who lived amongst them. With the founding of the State of Israel, the Jews were no longer wanted. Entire communities were thrown into exile. Millions, from Morocco and Tunisia all the way to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen, were sent packing.
As the refugees streamed to Israel, the secular Ashkenazi elites set about robbing them of their hallowed heritage and stripping them of the Torah way of life they had been following for over a thousand years, and in some countries going back to the time of the churban.
Despite valiant attempts to save as many as possible from the evil designs of the meisisim and madichim who controlled the levers of power in Israel at the time, only a minority of them were saved. Their children were ripped away from them and sent to secular schools, and those who insisted on following the Shulchan Aruch were prevented from earning a living.
Many were relegated to living in tents, ma’abarot, dusty towns far from the center of the country. They were treated as, and turned into, second-class citizens.
To a large degree, it was Rav Ovadiah Yosef who brought them back to Torah, showing them the way and restoring pride in their heritage and culture. He trudged from door to door signing up children to religious schools. He traveled across the country telling stories, parables and simple Torah thoughts to inspire people to lead Torah lives. Then the great gaon returned home and delved into the deep sea of Talmud.
He lowered himself to the level of people who had been made to feel that they were destined to lead second-class lives in order to raise them higher than those who had subjugated them.
His efforts gave birth to a generation of observant Jews. He was the last, great, modern-day builder and he created something from almost nothing. He created a generation of Sefardic Torah greatness, including rabbonim, bnei Torah and simple, good, ehrliche Jews. These people saw in Chacham Ovadiah the manifestation of Torah grandeur and holiness, and they followed his every word and sought to emulate him.
He revealed to them the greatness of their own legacy, showing the descendants of the Rambam and the Ran how the Torah of their ancestors is the stuff of life itself. He took the p’sokim of the Bais Yosef and demonstrated their enduring relevance. The message spread. “We have a rav,” Sefardim said to each other. “Maran is so brilliant that the Ashkenazi gedolim revere him. Yet he understands us and is paving a road especially for us, according to our traditions.”
Years of learning in poverty and privation took their toll and Rav Ovadia’s eyes suffered. As a relatively young man, he faced serious eye surgery and, eventually, the doctors told him that he would likely lose his eyesight.
He traveled to Tzefas, to the kever of Rav Yosef Karo, and burst into tears. “Maran,” he cried, “I gave the best of my kochot, my energy and time, to restoring the crown, to bringing your teshuvot and p’sakim to our people. I need to see. I still have work to do.”
His tefillos were answered, but the dark glasses he wore until the very end were a reminder of that scary period and how he – and hundreds of thousands – was saved from a life of darkness.
Wherever you go in Eretz Yisroel, you see religious Sefardim, prideful in their traditions. You see young couples, the wives wearing tichels and the husbands with beards and peyos, and you know that they are that way because of Rav Ovadiah. Sefardi yeshivos and kollelim flourish across the land, thanks to his efforts.
Was he the only one? No. Were there others who cared and acted and contributed to the Sefardi rebirth? Of course. But it was he who led the way and showed by his own personal example that it could be done.
Around the world, Sefardim study Chacham Ovadiah’s halacha seforim and conduct themselves according to his rulings.
Rav Shmuel Auerbach recounted in his hesped at the levaya that as a young man, he knew Rav Ovadiah, “the masmid from Porat Yosef.” Think about how much Torah this man, who never stopped studying, learned in his 93 years. Think about how much Torah he caused to be learned. Ponder how many battles he fought for Torah and consider how many people he helped. You will realize just how much a person can accomplish even in our day.
As a teenager, Rav Ovadiah was meitzar betzoroson shel echov. He was deeply pained by the spiritual suffering and neglect that his brothers and sisters were subjected to. Along with his phenomenal hasmodah, at the age of 17 he began delivering shiurim in local shuls.
Despite his towering brilliance, photographic memory and amazingly quick mind, he was able to speak on the level of simple Jews in a style they understood, identified with and accepted. His unique ability to reach Jews of all levels of observance and intellect was a Divine gift that endeared him to generations of Jews who loved him as a father.
As he rose to prominence, he saw his primary responsibility in his rabbinic positions as imbuing people with Torah, love of Torah, emunah and a desire to return to the observance of their forbears.
Rav Ovadiah saw it as his shlichus to be machzir atarah leyoshnah and return Sefardic Jewry to its glorious past. He sought to connect them with the scholarship and piety of the Rambam and Rabbeinu Yonah, and to follow once again the path of the Bais Yosef, whose halachic rulings Rav Ovadiah scrupulously observed and advocated.
As chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, in addition to his duties on the Bais Din and solving difficult halachic questions, he spent every night delivering shiurim. He never stopped teaching. Rav Ovadiah tore himself away from his beloved Gemara and poskim to fulfill his goal of returning his brethren to their proper place and previous glory.
After he was appointed Sefardic chief rabbi of Israel in 1973, he became the ultimate rov and ambassador to the Sefardic world, engendering deep affection as he enriched them with ahavat and limud haTorah.
However, his greatest spiritual impact came during the last 30 years of his life, after he had retired from his position as chief rabbi in 1983. In his 60s, when most people begin to slow down, following a remarkable rabbinic career, Rav Ovadiah embarked on the most fruitful era of his life, an era that would forever change the face of Sefardic Jewry.
The establishment of the Shas political party with Rav Ovadiah as its spiritual leader began a period of unprecedented outreach that transformed the Sefardic world.
He saw the Shas party as the vehicle with which to cut through the government red tape that limited schools, yeshivos and kollelim to several chareidi centers in Eretz Yisroel. He used Shas to expand and bring the devar Hashem to every corner of Eretz Yisroel.
Under Shas, he established the “Mayan Hachinuch HaTorani” network of elementary schools that brought Torah education to hundreds of thousands of Sefardic youth who would have otherwise languished in state schools and remained secular and at the underclass of Israeli society.
Mayan Hachinuch Hatorani established hundreds of schools from Kiryat Shemonah in the north to Eilat in the south and everywhere in between. The poor industrial cities on the periphery, where so many Sefardic families live, were given priority.
The schools educated an entire generation in the ways of the Torah. Their hundreds of thousands of alumni have enriched Klal Yisroel.
He directed his talmidim to establish dozens of excellent Sefardi yeshivos to produce not only bnei Torah, but also talmidei chachomim, rabbonim, poskim, madrichim and teachers for future generations. He created the demand and then established kollelim for people to learn Torah lishmah and to enable Sefardi gedolei Torah, poskim and roshei yeshiva to spring forth.
He saw the Shas party as a vehicle for spreading Torah in an absolutely unprecedented way. There was nothing, neither on the political front nor the domestic or foreign policy front, that took precedence over the mosdos of Torah that Shas supported and created. Rav Ovadiah’s strict instruction to Shas was always the same: “Use the political power that you have to build Torah,”
he would tell the Shas representatives. “We have more Torah building to do. We must be machzir atarah leyoshnah.”
On his word, governments were established and fell. He was courted by politicians of all stripes. He put people in power and cut others down to size. Yet, his credo remained the same. He led the party to great successes and also suffered some defeats, yet he never lost sight of the goal.
I came to know him in the past few years and would make it a habit to daven in his beit knesset on at least one morning during my visits to Eretz Yisroel. That was an experience in itself. The Sefardi nusach hatefillah always touched me. Following davening, he would say a devar halacha. As he rose to leave, the minyan would sing a beautiful pizmon of brachos for him.
I would then be permitted to enter his office for conversation. He was unfailingly gentle, kind and wise. He had the custom of smacking across the face those who found favor in his eyes. The first time I went there, I was told that if I received a smack it was a good sign. Though I had been warned, I was caught off guard when the smacks came. They were full of love and cherished each time.
The last time I was there, the gabbai told me that the rav was weak and that if he didn’t smack me, I shouldn’t be insulted. We were speaking for a few minutes when he began smacking me right and left. My son counted twelve petch. I was thankful for every one of them. Alas, they were the last petch I would receive.
As he smacked the right cheek, he would say, “Orech yomim b’yemino,” and as he smacked the left cheek, he would say, “Ubesemolo osher vechavod.”
He began life as a poor boy in a poor neighborhood, probably not given much of a chance to get further than a job in his father’s makolet. But he learned Torah lishmah mitoch hadchak and became conversant with more seforim than probably anybody in the past few hundred years.
In that merit, he earned and merited orech yomim and osher vechavod. He showed hundreds of thousands the way and proved that greatness is in every person’s reach.
Rav Ovadiah was machzir atarah leyoshnah in a historic fashion and will be long remembered for his accomplishments. His seforim will be reprinted and studied for the rest of time by people who owe to him their fidelity to Torah.
Rashi in Parshas Chukas quotes the Chazal that the passing of tzaddikim is mechaper for the generation. Let us hope and pray that this final potch we have received from Rav Ovadiah will indeed lead to much-needed kapparah for our dor yasom.
Kaddish is recited to replace the kedushah the niftar brought to the world though his Torah and mitzvos. Upon the passing of such a towering giant, we are all obligated to do what we can to fill the vacuum of kedushah caused by his passing.
Sefardim recite an additional sentence in Kaddish. They pray for salvation and “revach vehatzallah,” relief and deliverance. The assembled in the beit knesset all repeat in unison, “Revach vehatzallah.”
As we mourn the passing of Rav Ovadiah Yosef ben Ovadiah, we pray for revach vehatzallah.
We are all familiar with the statement of Rav Yosef, (Pesochim 68b), regarding the Yom Tov of Shavuos, “Iy lav hay yoma kamah Yosef ika beshookah,” if not for this day of matan Torah, I would be like all the other Yosefs in the street.
The resounding cry that came forth from multitudes of Sefardim who jammed the narrow streets on Monday, was “Iy lav Yosef, hayiti beshooka,” if not for Rav Yosef, I’d be just another person hanging out in the shuk or street.
Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, rov of the Ashkenazim in Yerushalayim and a gaon for the ages, said of the young Rav Ovadia, “He will be the meishiv of the coming generation.”
Meishiv has two meanings. It can refer to the one with the answers, the great posek. But it can also mean the one who was meishiv so many, who returned a generation from sin and despair, from the darkness of not knowing who they are to the glorious legacy bequeathed to them.
He was the one. He was the meishiv of the generation.
Yehi zichro boruch.