According to the holy Zohar, the term Shabbat can be used to refer to an exceptional tzaddik, such as Ribbi Shim’on bar Yohai. Just as the spirit of Shabbat gives life and meaning to the rest of the week, the tzaddik gives life and meaning to his generation. Reflecting on the life and deeds of Maran Hakham Ovadia Yosef, zt”l, we might say that the term fits him aptly—he was the Shabbat of our generation.
G-d gave us Shabbat be’avaha uvratzon, with love and enthusiasm. These terms truly sum up Maran’s entire life. I moved to Eretz Yisrael over 20 years ago, drawn in part by my desire to grow closer to Maran and learn his ways. All I knew of him at that time was that he was an outstanding Torah scholar with a phenomenal, almost photographic memory.
During my first Elul in the Land, I learned that Hakham Ovadia, already an elderly man, was scheduled to make appearances all across the country, in dozens of communities. Three or four times a week he was the star attraction at one or more teshuba rallies in different cities. Describing his experiences at these rallies, he told us that the crowds, consisting mainly of Jews who were barely if at all observant, gave him the strength and will to make these efforts. He emphasized that they all possessed emunah in their hearts, and for that they deserved his love. It was not their fault that they had never been taught to observe the mitzvot.
I was awestruck. I had never dreamed that so venerable a rabbi would give so much of himself for the sake of others or unabashedly express so much emotion in public. But that was just the beginning. The more I came to know him and hear him speak, the more overwhelmed I was, seeing and experiencing his love and compassion for all Jews. Although he had cultivated an impassioned love for Torah study and an incredible mastery of every branch of Torah knowledge, his major concern was the spiritual welfare of his people, the entire nation of Yisrael.
He spoke with pride of the simple, average Jew. He always saw the good side of people, even while dealing with the high-placed officials with whom he had to battle to safeguard Torah and mitzvot in the Land. We could see the pain in his heart and on his face when he was forced to attack those misguided individuals who sought to undermine Torah observance and religious life here or abroad.
Everything Hakham Ovadia did was filled with enthusiasm. Of course he learned Torah and prayed enthusiastically, and he was likewise enthusiastic when working to help others. He created kiruv organizations and political parties, arranged for charity funds and met foreign heads of state, all with the same enthusiasm. As long as he was working for G-d—which was all the time—he was smiling, enthused and infused with spiritual energy.
From his early youth Hakham Ovadia amassed phenomenal Torah knowledge. Armed with this, he set out to change the world, or as he put it, to restore the “crown” to its former glory. He had no desire to build his own reputation, nor did he seek monetary gain. His love for G-d and his love for his fellow Jews were the forces that moved him throughout his 70 years of public service.
Early on, he began teaching classes in synagogues across Yerushalayim. His lessons included a bit of humor, an inspiring story, and halakha, all delivered with his unique powers of persuasion. As his fame spread and he advanced to ever more influential positions, the number of classes and lectures he delivered grew to three or more each evening.
Despite his worldwide reputation, despite his becoming the spiritual head of the nation, and despite his position as leader of a major political movement, Hakham Ovadia remained modest and humble, as he had been in his youth. He always treated everyone with love and respect. He wept as he spoke of the sins he claimed to have amassed. Even as we watched him from afar we could feel his affection for us and for all Jews. Is it any wonder that we grew to love him as well?
No longer do we have the opportunity to attend Hakham Ovadia’s lectures or to consult with him. He has risen to a world of eternal Shabbat, where he is basking in the splendor of the Torah to which he devoted his life. We can only imagine his enthusiasm as he delves into the intricate mysteries of Torah that have now been opened to him. Yet I am sure that he has not forgotten us. He is still watching over us, praying for us and guiding us as we advance toward our glorious destiny.
It is difficult to say farewell; his overwhelming presence seems to hover over us still. Maran, kevod Harav, Shabbat Shalom!