Rabbi Yosef: Not for him, but for ourselves

It is not just for the passing of the giant among giants that we cry today, but for what we could have still learned from him and now never will.

October 9, 2013 21:32
3 minute read.
A poster of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef poster 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

It is not just for the passing of the giant among giants that we cry today, but for what we could have still learned from him and now never will.

The hand writes, but the heart refuses to believe. The passing of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – among the Jewish nation’s spiritual giants of all time – is a difficult loss; not only for the thousands of his students and those who listened to his lessons, but for the entire Jewish world.

I was privileged to visit Rabbi Yosef, may the memory of the righteous be a blessing, hundreds of times. Along with the most senior figures in the State of Israel and abroad, we discussed issues of great consequence, dealing with Am Yisrael, Torat Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael. Time after time, I saw how the rabbi surprised his interlocutors with the pleasantness of his expressions and mannerisms, with his love of man and his outstanding comprehension of the issues at hand – irrespective of them being issues of a public-halachic nature, or matters of state, finance, or security.

It is no coincidence Rabbi Yosef merited the title “Maran” (an Aramaic term meaning “our master”) in his lifetime; a title conferred on very few, among them Maran Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch and the Beit Yosef and the rabbi of the residents of the Land of Israel.

His halachic authority was indisputable. He was extraordinary in his tremendous power as a posek, arbiter of Jewish law; in his phenomenal knowledge of any field he touched in or out of the Jewish world; and in his unshakable leadership.

Maran was attentive to reality, attentive to renewal in the world and to feelings of the public, while at the same time, no one was more loyal than he to the Jewish legal traditions of Spanish, or Sephardi, Jewry.

This inspired his authority to teach, without fear, based on the needs of the generation. I asked myself many times what the secret was to the greatness of Rabbi Yosef. I think it was based on his incredible ability to see both the private individual and the entirety of the nation with extraordinary clarity and lucidity, and pave a consistent and moderate halachic path that the entire public could keep to without deviation.

This greatness was crucial to Rabbi Yosef when he reestablished the glory of the heritage of Sephardi Jewry, which had been trampled during the first years of the state. The Sephardi Jews, immigrants from Babylon and Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, saw in Maran a halachic and spiritual lighthouse guiding them back to their forefathers’ forgotten port.

Just like King David, “Adino Ha’Etzni,” who when he would sit and learn Torah would make himself small like a worm, and when he would go out to war would become hard like wood, the rabbi was kind to every person, while risking his own life in the battle for Torah, its unity and its identity.

Throughout his life, the rabbi criss-crossed the country to spread Torah. It did not matter to him if he was speaking before a crowd of thousands or before a small group of poor Jews in a local synagogue. “This is Torah – and I must teach.”

With unfathomable strength, one man single-handedly returned the crown to its previous glory and founded an entire world of Torah.

In Tractate Sanhedrin, the Talmud tells of the passing of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurcanus, among the giants of the tana’im, the Mishnaic sages: “He took both his arms and rested them on his heart and said, ‘Woe to you my two arms which are like two Torah scrolls being rolled... I learned much Torah, and I did not miss [the words of] my rabbis even like a dog licks the water of the sea. I taught much Torah, and my students did not miss me but were like a paintbrush in a paint tube.”

It is not just for the passing of the giant among giants that we cry today, but for what we could have still learned from him and now never will. We are not crying just for him, but also for ourselves.

Our generation merited, and we all merited, standing in the shade of one of the Jewish nation’s greatest of all time. May it be that we merit to walk in his path. Maran Rav Ovadia, my teacher and rabbi, rest in peace and sleep in peace until the arrival of the Comforter heralding peace. His merit will protect us and all of Israel.

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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