For the week ending 19 October 2013 / 15 Heshvan 5774

Rav Ovadia Yosef A Torah Giant in Every Sense

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
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It is hard to even begin to fathom the enormity of the passing of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Rav Ovadia (as he was affectionately known throughout the Orthodox world) was ninety three years old when he passed away last week – certainly a ripe age and one that most people would regard as a long life. So why the vast outpouring of grief among all sectors of the Jewish Nation? And what was it about Rav Ovadia’s life that caused an unprecedented eight hundred thousand people to attend his funeral?

To put it simply, Rav Ovadia was a giant in every single dimension of Torah. He knew everything. His encyclopedic knowledge was certainly enhanced by his phenomenal memory. It is hard to even try to quantify that knowledge. He knew intimately every single one of the over ten thousand scholarly works in his library. But his real strength in understanding Torah came from his exceptional powers of concentration. He was renowned for being so engrossed in his studies that he was completely unaware of what was happening around him. Binyamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, related that on several occasions he came to discuss extremely weighty matters with Rav Ovadia and he would wait until Rav Ovadia became aware that he was there. Sometimes it would take a few minutes and often much longer, but the Prime Minister would not interrupt the Rav’s studies because he felt that Rav Ovadia was dealing with the past, the present and the future of the Jewish People as he learnt his precious Torah.

Rav Ovadia was considered to be the final word in all matters of Jewish Law for the Sephardic community. Of course, being conversant with all the myriad authorities of Jewish Law over the generations meant that he was able to rule on all matters, but there was something so much deeper than “just” knowledge. Rav Ovadia was able to relate to every single person according to who he was. He did not remain ensconced in the Ivory Tower of academia. Rather, he went out to the people. Rav Ovadia would travel the length and breadth of the country to teach Torah to anyone and everyone and he had an uncanny ability to be able to understand immediately not just what was being asked but why it was being asked as well. His ability to rule on all matters that were brought to him (and questions flooded in each and every day from all four corners of the world!) was based not just on his unparalleled accumulation of wisdom, but also on his unparalleled concern and love for the Jewish People. Just ask any one of the multitudes who received Rav Ovadia’s trademark pat on the cheek – a sign of his true affection for the person. He positively radiated warmth and love for all Jews regardless of what their spiritual levels, and that love was reciprocated in the numbers of Jews who came to bid him a final farewell.

Our Sages teach us that the passing of a righteous person leaves a gaping hole, and that we are supposed to learn a lesson from their passing from this world. How much more so when that righteous person also happened to be the spiritual leader of so many countless people! Is it possible to take just one message from the passing of Rav Ovadia – is it possible to take just one facet from such a multi-faceted personality? Personally, I think that the simplest and perhaps the most important lesson that we can take from Rav Ovadia’s passing is the value of time. I truly believe that in a certain way Rav Ovadia is irreplaceable, but I also truly believe that we can all learn from his time-management. We all manage to get from one end of the day to the other, but the real question is how much time do we lose on the way. Even if a person manages to "rescue" only a few minutes each day due to being touched by Rav Ovadia's passing, then a lesson of immeasurable worth has been learnt.

With the passing of Rav Ovadia we have lost one of the greatest scholars and role-models of the last several generations. It is not for me to measure and to judge, but I feel that Rav Ovadia – that giant of Torah and of Fear of Heaven – is someone that cannot be replicated, which means that we have just slipped into a slightly lower level than we were in prior to his passing. This loss is very disturbing, and I believe that it carries with it enormous repercussions for us – the generation that is left orphaned from one of our greatest leaders. Rav Ovadia could rule on anything at any time. But it wasn’t just “religious” matters. He made enormous decisions in the societal spheres that were completely unhindered by anything aside from the Torah that he cherished and loved without any limits.

What will be now? I do not know. But I do know that our world will not be quite the same with Rav Ovadia's passing.

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