The Prophet Yirmeyahu said “He has cast Yisrael’s glory down from the Heaven to the ground.” It is not possible for me, a tiny, feeble candle, to properly eulogize the glory of the sun. Nevertheless, my heart is churning within my breast. I must express my feelings about the loss of our nation’s leader, the leading Posek of the generation, its crowning glory, the pillar of kiruv, the pillar of Torah and of halakha.
So many memories run through my head. Personal stories, moments of joy when I spent time with Maran zt”l. I cannot describe it in this short forum. When I look at the photographs of my meetings with Hakham Ovadia, I feel that I had once traveled through a time-tunnel to the golden era of Rambam, some 850 years ago, and spent a number of years with him. Now that Maran is gone, I have been thrust back into the darkness of 2013.
Our generation has been privileged to have been led by one of the greatest Torah leaders of all generations—Harav Ovadia Yosef zt”l. His greatness cannot be measured by the standards of the present. He was someone from a past generation who somehow was placed here among us.
The term Gedol hador refers to someone who excels in Torah wisdom and the fear of Heaven. This is insufficient to define it, however. In each case, one must measure the influence the Gadol has on his generation and on future generations.
It is not possible for us to comprehend Harav Ovadia’s Torah scholarship. If his writings would have been discovered in the Cairo genizah, the finders would imagine that the author lived centuries ago. Anyone who peruses a responsum found in Yabia Omer is astounded at the breadth of knowledge, the vast number of resources and the genius evident in his writing, besides the unequaled clarity with which his ideas are expressed and organized.
Harav Ovadia not only authored dozens of books about halakha and the entire spectrum of Torah scholarship, he shaped the world of halakhic study for the future generations, at least for Sephardic Jewry. His works summarize all the material written since the time that the Talmud was first put into writing, down to the works of his contemporaries and disciples. He breathed new life into halakhic works that had been long forgotten and were collecting dust on their yellowing pages in far-flung libraries. He included their wisdom in his responsa, combining the wisdom of the rabbis of Lithuania, Hungary and Poland with that of the rabbis of Turkey, Aleppo, Tunisia and Morocco.
Who are those who came from Gan Eden to greet Maran zt”l, as he left this world? He can be credited for resurrecting the memories of dozens of great Torah scholars from past generations. A long list of Rishonim and Acharonim have become part of our Torah lexicon only because Maran popularized them. He used their teachings, pored over their chiddushim and included them in his teachings and rulings. In his merit, these names and their Torah are familiar members of every bet midrash today.
Every rabbi, wherever in the world he may be, must refer to Rav Ovadia’s works to make any halakhic decision. Besides this, Rav Ovadia has shaped the way Sephardic Torah scholars approach the study of Talmud and halakha. We must all thank him for showing us how to formulate a halakhic responsum, how to study the Bet Yosef and the commentators of the Shulhan Arukh, and how to seek answers in the responsa of others. Harav Ovadia’s sefarim have become for Sephardic Jewry what the Mishnah Berurah became for Ashkenazic Jewry.
More than this, Rav Ovadia raised the heads of Sephardic Jews all over the world, uniting them under the banner of the Torah. Until his appearance, each community was disparate, clinging to its own traditions, customs and versions of the prayers. Now, the great majority of Sephardic Jews all over the world use prayer books that follow the version that he painstakingly sifted and perfected. His decisions affect many hundreds of thousands of people in Eretz Yisrael and throughout the Diaspora.
When Sephardic Jews first arrived in Eretz Yisrael en masse, they were downtrodden and impoverished. They were susceptible to the pull of secular life that was so prevalent in the new state. The government did its best to persuade them to shed their religious trappings and lifestyles. They hoped to destroy the traditions of the Jewish communities and wrest control of the laymen from the rabbis. Hundreds of thousands of Sephardic Jews faced spiritual annihilation.
At that juncture, Harav Ovadia rose like a warrior in full battle gear. He reached out to the people with his golden pure heart. He made it his primary goal to bring these hundreds of thousands back, to restore the crown to its original glory. Suddenly, being an observant Sephardic Jew became once again something to be proud of. Suddenly, people no longer had reason to be ashamed of their rich heritage. Within a short time, you could find observant Sephardic Jews in every corner and Sephardic synagogues on every street in almost every community in Eretz Yisrael. Eventually, the benches of the yeshivot were being filled with Sephardic boys who devoted all their time to studying the precious Torah. Suddenly, it became apparent that the nation of Yisrael and G-d were being robbed all those years before.
Immigrants from Iraq, Morocco, Tunis and Egypt saw Rav Ovadia as a lighthouse of halakha and Jewish spirit. He guided them back to safety, back to port where their ancestors’ traditions lay. He succeeded in restoring the crown to its glory. Sephardic Jews were able to stand with pride and point to their pride and joy, Rav Ovadia Yosef. He gave them hope, he breathed life into their psyche.Maran zt”l, took second-class citizens and turned them into the most powerful sector of the population. He became such a powerful influence that he outshined all the previous efforts and organizations that attempted to accomplish. He used this influence for one purpose only—to increase Torah knowledge among his people. This is what burned in his heart throughout his life.
Using his outstanding charisma and charm, Harav Ovadia persuaded people who had gone wayward to return to a life of Torah and mitzvot. In this aspect, he probably accomplished more than anyone in history. Despite his incredible diligence in Torah study, Rav Ovadia devoted himself to teaching others wherever he could reach them since his early youth. He was willing to travel long distances to give lessons, even if only a few people attended. Eventually, he raised an entire generation of rabbis, rabbinical judges, heads of yeshivot and working people who devoted a good part of each day to Torah study. He oversaw the creation of countless Torah institutions and hessed organizations in Eretz Yisrael and in the Diaspora. One can safely say that Rav Ovadia was the most influential Sephardic Torah scholar since Harav Yosef Karo, almost five centuries ago.
I believe that a few decades hence, people will have a hard time believing that such a great man existed in the previous generation. It is unlikely that we will ever see someone who will equal Rav Ovadia. He did not inherit his greatness from his family, nor did he model himself after anyone else. He built himself through abject poverty. He knew that the Torah was available to him for the taking, and he took it. Eventually, he became a symbol of the Mishna’s teaching: Whoever fulfills the Torah through poverty will in the end fulfill it through wealth.
On Monday morning this week, that great heart ceased beating. All at once, a million Jews made their way from all over Eretz Yisrael toward Yerushalayim. Sephardic Jews, Ashkenazic Jews, newly observant Jews, chareidi Jews and modern traditional Jews all came to bid farewell to the generation’s Torah leader.
I have been weeping incessantly since the moment of his passing. I cry out silently, “My father! My father! The chariot and cavalry of Yisrael!” I feel a profound sense of loss, as if I had lost a parent, perhaps more than that. He was my spiritual guide and mentor, my spiritual father.
Today, I went to visit Rav Ovadia’s sons as they sat shiv’a. There were literally thousands of people there waiting to be admitted. Miraculously, I managed to get inside and I stood in front of the Rav’s four surviving sons, Rabbis Abraham, Yitzhak, David and Moshe. They looked at me wordlessly and I looked at them. Suddenly, I leaned forward and broke into tears as I screamed out, “May G-d console you and all of us among the mourners of Tziyon and Yerushalayim, and may you never know of more sorrow. May you be comforted from Heaven.”
I believe that my tears fell onto the mourners as they joined me in weeping. From there, I walked home. I was sobbing incessantly the entire way. As I began, I am but a tiny, feeble candle. I wish that I would be worthy of being considered a disciple of the great luminary, Hacham Ovadia Yosef zt”l.
As time passes, I imagine his holy face shining with happiness as always, telling me, “What’s going on? There is simply a change of address. Does this mean that you have to close up shop? Heaven forbid! Such a thing must never happen. Continue your work, spreading Torah knowledge. Continue teaching people the rulings of Maran Harav Yosef Karo. Write more responsa, raise more disciples. You can do it. Use the traditions that I have left for you and for the entire generation. Use my many sefarim to fuel the torch to illuminate the next generation.”
We were privileged to have Hakham Ovadia with us, teaching us for three quarters of a century. He has gone away but he has left his teachings for us. We have his rulings, his ways and his world outlook. He has influenced hundreds of thousands of Jewish homes in Eretz Yisrael and abroad. His Torah will remain with us, his rulings will continue to guide us and his noble personality will remain etched in our memories.
According to legend, when Rashi passed away people gathered at his home and cried bitterly and incessantly. Among them was a five-year-old child, a grandson of Rashi named Yaakov. He asked why everyone was crying and he was told, “The lamp has been extinguished.”
The child replied, “If so, I will rekindle it.” He grew up to become Rabbenu Tam, the central figure among the authors of Tosafot. Hakham Ovadia illuminated the entire world. His light found its way into every Jewish home, gracing it with genuine Judaism and Torah. This light appears to have been extinguished, but in truth his Torah continues to shine as brightly as ever. Our duty is to take the flame and kindle as many lamps as possible, to bring Torah and halakha to every Jewish home. We must educate our children in the ways of Torah and spread the light of halakha to every corner of the world. In that way, these lamps can unite and drive away the darkness. We can light the pathway for the arrival of Mashi’ah, Amen.
Rabbi Bitan is the author of the Yalkut Yosef in English