Our tears have yet to dry on our cheeks. I am not sure that they ever will dry up. The torrent of tears burst through the dam for millions of Jews in Eretz Yisrael and throughout the world. Suddenly, we have all been thrown down to the ground, pinned down by a loss of spiritual support. Why is all this so? It is because Maran Ovadia Yosef zt”l, was larger than our generation. Or perhaps we should say, the generation is too shrunken, too beaten by the wind to fully appreciate Maran’s greatness. It is still unclear.
One thing is clear. For the world of the Sephardic Jew, this century is divided into two distinct periods—one with Maran’s presence and one that is no longer graced by it. This second period is extremely fragile. Miniscule cracks run through it; it trembles with its own uncertainty. This is because the greatest and strongest of us are incapable of filling the shoes of Maran, who served as Posek and leader in an era surging with vicissitudes and dangers.
Throughout the week of mourning, people spoke of us being orphaned. We feel a deep, awesome, unfathomable loss. With all our modern skills and technological know-how, we have yet to develop the device that can measure Maran’s monumental contribution to us, for our generation and for many generations to follow.
It is not in our power to describe, so soon after his passing, the greatness of such a giant of spirit. People will write about his amazing Torah knowledge, the power of his prayers and his outstanding acts of hesed, both those he made public and those he hid from the public’s eye. But we will never know, certainly not in the near future, the true extent of Maran’s influence on the history of the Jewish people, how much he shaped the direction of the State of Israel, and how he gave hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Sephardic Jews a different perception of themselves. We are still feeling the effects of his efforts; perhaps we are still at the very beginning.
Heard in Jerusalem’s Streets
Maran zt”l, was the standard-bearer of the movement to restore Sephardic Jewry to its former status in the hierarchy of Torah greatness. Five or six decades ago, Porat Yosef was basically the only higher yeshivah for Sephardic young men. The Rashei Yeshivah perceived the enormous potential in Maran as a youngster. They did everything to equip him with the tools to realize their vision and bring their hopes to fruition. They placed their hopes in him to return the lost members of our people to the flock by igniting the spark of faith and pride in their hearts.
Maran’s heart was fertile soil for planting the seeds of a revolution for Sephardic Jewry. Even as a youth, one could see in him the signs of his incredible power of plucking lost souls from the depths and carrying them to their homes on his wings. Already then, children ran to find places in synagogues and battei midrash with his encouragement. If the streets of Yerushalayim could eulogize him, they would recount how he gathered the children in all the synagogues, large and small. They would tell how he quickly strode through Jerusalem neighborhoods, from Musayof to Geulah and to Beit Yisrael, offered yet another lesson in practical halakhah, another page of Gemara, another study in the weekly Torah reading. Every lesson was delivered with his special grace and humor, with a smile and with wit. His lectures could be attended by nine-year-old children and ninety-year-old codgers, sharp-minded kollel students and simple laborers after a long day of work. Each could listen with interest to his rulings, since they were presented with the pleasant fragrance of cinnamon tea and fresh myrtle branches.
Yes, this is the way it was long before the politics began. I know that people hate the term politics. But, long before there was an issue of appointing people to positions, status and jobs, Maran was already at work remaking Sephardic Jewry. He tilled the ground so that he could sow the seeds of faith. This was not only in Yerushalayim. It took place in Beer Sheba, Ashdod, Dimona, Tel Aviv, Tirat Hacarmel, Haifa, Acre and Nahariya. He took it to little settlements and forgotten communities. He never told anyone, “No, I don’t have time for you.” He always agreed; he always had the time.
Long before the Sephardic politicians waved the banners of victory for their excellence in public service, Maran had already been there. He sowed the seeds and watered the seedlings. Wherever Torah grew, he was behind it.
Planting Trees of Emunah
Maran zt”l planted the trees of Torah so that their branches would cast the shadow of emunah and yirat Shamayim on the new generation. This was long before anyone thought of teaching Torah in kindergarten classes and certainly before anyone thought of becoming principal of a Talmud Torah school or a lecturer in a yeshivah.
At the same time that the atheistic Mapai activists danced over their success in sucking the blood of Sephardic Jewry, pulling them away from their faith and emptying their synagogues, Maran was already laying the groundwork for the counter-revolution to bring everyone back home. He counted his successes one person at a time, one child at a time, one child from a kibbutz and then from a settlement. He found them in urban centers and in Zionist establishments, simple people and influential people alike.
How did he do it? First of all, it was through the power of his personal Torah study. The energy he put into Torah study was something unmatched in this generation, and apparently it was unmatched going back several generations as well. Furthermore, he did it through his sincere, faith-filled prayers that undoubtedly pierced through to the highest Heavens. His prayers were accentuated by his tears, flowing freely and silently in the hope that his wounded brethren would be healed spiritually, step by step until they would achieve perfect health.
It would not be right to describe Maran’s public service as beginning with his establishment of the Shas political party. With all due respect to Shas and the incredible accomplishments it can show, we must admit that it was Maran who prepared for it with decades of hard work. He breathed life into the movement; he pushed and encouraged the young men he appointed to fight the battles, instilling courage and confidence where none had existed before. He said, “You can do it. It is within reach. We are not powerless.”
“Open more yeshivot and institutions,” he often pushed. “Don’t worry. Hashem will help. You won’t run out of money.” He implanted solid faith in his people, telling them that Heaven’s help was right around the corner. From his lofty position, he brought the horn of plenty to the Torah world, to all who were in need and to all who hungered for Torah. All we needed to do was to come, to participate, to reach forward. The blessings of the Gedol Hador were available. He had envisioned it and sowed the seeds for it more than sixty years earlier. We are witness to his revolution today.
No Heir Apparent
Today, Sephardic communities are facing their most difficult challenges since the establishment of the State of Israel. We have no captain, no guide. We have lost our mighty warrior. We are not sure of the direction of our spiritual development. For reasons unknown to us, Maran did not reveal to us who should succeed him. Perhaps this is part of the Divine plan as well.
What can we do? We have no tools to measure the influence Maran will still wield on the future generations. Likewise, we lack the skills to find and magnify the goodness that he was able to discover within the heart of every Jew.
It is crucial for us to emphasize that Maran zt”l, not only created a monumental edifice of Torah and halakhah, but he also built people. He was there for the youth, for families, for one Jew after the other. He gave people advice they needed in making important decisions in life, he gave his blessings. Maran was the key through which all these people connected with Hashem.
His home was always open, as was his sensitive heart. He was always ready to listen to barren women, widows, orphans, the ill and downtrodden. Whoever they were, he served as their loving father. He was everyone’s father. When he pinched or slapped someone’s cheek, that person knew that it came from his father. Everyone knew that he loved us all, that he prayed sincerely for us all.
It was such a wonderful feeling to know that we had a father who was so wise, who possessed such yirat Shamayim, who was no doubt beloved by Hashem. This feeling gave us strength and spirit. When someone left Maran’s presence, he invariably was stronger than before and committed to building himself anew with Torah and emunah. The future appeared rosier because his father had blessed him and encouraged him.
Maran, Our Father
For me personally, Maran zt”l was my guide in life, my leader and my authority. Now, I feel that I have lost my father. The pain is far greater than when I lost my biological father.
Maran, we were privileged to stand by you for decades. We saw your self-sacrifice and stupendous efforts to raise the Sephardic world of Torah. How can we describe it? There is nothing to compare to it.
There is a type of pride that is proper and a type that is despicable. It is wonderful when a Jew feels pride for the fact that he is going in the ways of Hashem. With his inimitable wisdom, Maran did his best to raise the honor of Sephardic halakhic rulings so that we could be proud to know them and follow them. He showed us that we had no reason to feel ashamed for our heritage, that we be proud to follow the rulings of Maran Harav Yosef Karo, author of the Shulhan Arukh. Thanks to the work of Maran, we have a clear understanding of the ways of halakhah, and thousands of Torah students have adopted them with pride and confidence.
During Maran’s lifetime, our bookshelves became filled with sefarim of halakhah and responsa. Once, the Sephardic yeshivah world was silent. No more.
I am not worthy of deciding halakhic rulings, but I am part of the world of Sephardic yeshivot and Torah living. This is a world that has been completely rebuilt. Today it is replete with Rashei Yeshivah, yeshivah teachers, rabbinical judges and rabbis who are fluent in the rulings of the Shulhan Arukh and the Aharonim. Before Maran, we lacked all this.
Sephardic pride. It is not just an expression; it is an anchor for values and sentiment. For decades, Sephardic Jews were downtrodden and scorned. They did not receive the recognition they deserved. People did not understand the greatness of their own halakhic traditions. Maran expertly guided us out of that quagmire. He brought an entire generation of Torah scholars to hold fast to the wisdom of Sephardic Jewry, the wisdom of generations of great scholars who built themselves on the Shulhan Arukh and Rav Yosef Karo. Maran shone their light on us all.
Today, we are still confused, bewildered about our future. Our ship has been cast astray and we don’t know where it is leading us. Despite this, let us remember how Maran, our leader, always remained confident about the future. He was a born optimist. He knew that he was doing the right thing and he always told us to remain on course while seeking to enhance Hashem’s honor.
We are incapable of telling the future. We must, therefore, place our full faith in Hashem to continue to provide us with the proper leaders even though Maran zt”l has been taken from us. We will continue to follow leaders who will go in the ways of Maran, who built Sephardic Jewry, placed the crown of Torah on our heads and taught us to love and cherish that Torah. We pray that we will continue on the road for the sake of our children and grandchildren until we will be privileged to see our final Redemption, Amen.
By Jack Avital, a community leader and activist.