Once or twice a year, Rabbi Frand deviates from his usual format and speaks in this last quarter hour about a “current event” related to a major story or issue that occurred during the prior week. Inasmuch as I began transcribing Rabbi Frand’s shiurim about 7 years after his recorded shiurim (initially tapes, then CDs, now MP3s) were first produced, I am always producing this “Written Torah” from his “Oral Torah” of 6 or 7 years ago. Consequently, when Rabbi Frand addresses “current events”, I typically do not transcribe this “dated material” for the Project Genesis readership.
With Rabbi Frand’s approval, I have made an exception to this policy this week to include “timely” comments he made the week of Parshas Lech Lecha 5774 / 2013. Although for the most part, they are not related to the parsha, I feel that they will be of interest and significance to our readership. In honor of the seventh Yahrtzeit / Meldado of an individual Rav Frand credits with being a great resource to him during the early years of his weekly Torah shiur, the following material has been prepared for your reading pleasure. – DT]
Maran Rav Ovadia Yosef, zt”l [1920-2013]
The pasuk says in Parshas Lech Lecha “Look please to the heavens and count the stars, if you can count them, thus will be your seed” [Bereshis 15:5]. In this famous pasuk, the Ribono shel Olam takes Avraham Avinu outside and promises him that his descendants will be (according to the simple p’shat) as numerous as the stars. Rabbeinu Bechaye provides a very unique reading of this pasuk which is not its straight-forward interpretation.
When we look at the stars from our vantage point, they all look the same. However, someone who looks through a telescope notices that each star is vastly different from one another – in color, in brightness, in shape, etc. Rabbeinu Bechaye interprets G-d’s promise to Avraham as follows: Just as the stars are each different from one another and totally unique, so too the “Chachmei Yisrael” (the Sages of Israel) will be unique. No Gadol will be an exact replica of any other Gadol. Gedolim are not cut from the same cloth. They are all different in their personalities, in their approaches, in their hashkafos, and in their spiritual achievements.
Rabbeinu Bechaye takes the pasuk totally out of context and sees a different insight in it. It is not merely referring to the multitude of descendants of Avraham Avinu. Rather, it is referring specifically to the Gedolim of each generation and is stating that they will each be unique as each star is unique.
Gedolim are not clones of one another and they do not mimic one another. That is what gives Klal Yisrael its diversity and its character. Different Manhigim have different approaches, each according to his nature and makeup. I believe this is an appropriate segue to speak of the tremendous loss Klal Yisrael has suffered this week in which we have lost HaRav Hagadol HaGaon HaChacham Rav Ovadia Yosef, zecher Tzadik l’Bracha.
In almost every area of life — every business, every profession — times have changed and people no longer conduct their affairs the way they previously did because of the change of technology. When I go to my doctor, he does not sit with a note pad and take notes of my medical history. He is typing onto his laptop. When someone goes to the dry cleaner, they no longer fill out that little pink slip and hand it to the customer. Your shirts and pants are registered into the customer database by computer. Your mechanic determines what is wrong with your car by plugging the engine into his computer. In recent years, computers have changed the way the world does everything!
And computers have impacted my shiurim as well! I have been giving this shiur, bli ayin haRa, for 32 years now. I do not remember exactly when I switched to using computers and computer programs to do my research, but it may already be for ten or twenty years that I make heavy use of the Bar Ilan program, the Otzar haChochmah database, the Otzar ha’Shu”t, and so forth. The question is – how did I prepare my shiur before computers, before I had fingertip access to thousands of seforim of halachic and Responsa literature?
The answer is that I had a computer! It was called the Yabia Omer. It was one of the first sefarim of Rav Ovadya Yosef, called Shaylos U’Teshuvos Yabia Omer. That was just as good as a computer. He cited any Teshuva that ever spoke about a subject. If I would chance upon a sugya in which there was a Siman in Yabia Omer – it would be an easy shiur for me to create. It was all there. All I had to do was to sift through it (which was not that easy because there was so much to go through).
For years and years, the two sefarim that I used extensively in the earlier days of this shiur were the Yabia Omer and the Tzitz Eliezer (Rav Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg (1915-2006)), two Gedolei Yisroel from Eretz Yisrael. But for tonight’s purposes, I am going to talk about the Yabia Omer. I and you and everyone who has ever come to this shiur or has ever listened to a recording of it is a Talmid of Rav Ovadia Yosef. I cannot even begin to count how many times over the years I have quoted him. We are all his students! We lost our Rebbe, whether you have ever laid eyes upon him, whether you have ever met him, we were all Talmidim of Rav Ovadia Yosef by virtue of his Sefarim which I use so much.
In the earlier years, there were six volumes of Yabia Omer. They were all tall and thick. I could only get two volumes – Chelek Aleph and Chelek Vov. The other Chalakim were out of print. I could not get my hands on them. There was a student in the Yeshiva from Brazil who had the entire six volume set. I asked him to go to a Speedy Print shop and photostat for me the entire four volumes of the Yabia Omer that I was missing. I kept them in these huge boxes. They were so invaluable to me that whatever it took, I had to get my hands on these sefarim – which did not otherwise exist in the entire city!
The encyclopedic knowledge and bekius that are contained in these volumes are mind-boggling. Someone could make the statement that this week the Jewish community lost the biggest Talmid Chochom in the world. Some people may argue “X” or “Y” are bigger Talmidei Chachomim, but it is certainly not a crazy statement to make that “the biggest Talmid Chochom in the world died this week!” Certainly, he was the world’s biggest expert on Teshuva Seforim (Responsa literature). Nobody else even came close.
Whether someone agreed with all his halachic opinions or whether someone agreed with all his pronouncements, does not make a difference. He is a person that every person who learns Torah and appreciates Torah must respect.
Thirty-two years ago, in 1981, Rav Ovadia Yosef came to Baltimore. I do not remember the exact circumstance but I know the Associated Jewish Charities of Baltimore invited him to come speak while he was the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel (Rishon L’Tzion). He came to Ner Israel and gave a shiur in the Yeshiva. K’Darko b’Kodesh, it was like listening to a phone book recitation of Sefarim. There was a Jew in this town that older Baltimoreans will remember — a great Talmid Chochom named Rav Yitzchok Sternhell. Rav Yitzchok Sternhell wrote a sefer called Kochav Yitzchok. He was a Munkatcher Chossid. Without going into the particulars, Munkatch is anti-Zionist. Rav Sternhell, who was the embodiment of Munkatch, was an anti-Zionist, but when Rav Ovadia Yosef came to the Yeshiva, Rav Sternhell came to listen to the shiur. He was so enamored by Rav Ovadia’s Torah that he ignored the “Rav HaRoshi thing” and all the trappings of an official State visit by the “Rishon L’Tzion“. Rav Ovadia was a Talmid Chochom. Not just a Talmid Chochom – this was a world class Talmid Chochom.
Rav Sternhell himself was a great baki (he had vast proficiency in Talmudic and Responsa literature) and Rav Ruderman (Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel) was an even greater baki. They were both amazed at Rav Ovadia Yosef. In a meeting in the Rosh Yeshiva’s house, they were going around introducing everyone to Rav Ovadia. When they introduced Rav Sternhell to Rav Ovadia Yosef, they mentioned that he authored the Kochav Yitzchok. Rav Ovadia immediately commented “Oh, the Kochav Yitzchok. I cite you in the third chelek of Yabia Omer in a Teshuva about life insurance!” That was Rav Ovadia. His memory was photographic. He saw something, he remembered it! He must have cited 100,000 sefarim in his collection of responsa.
But besides the learning, Chacham Ovadia was an historic transformative figure. It is very important to realize that when we talk of a transformative figure, we mean people that transform society. Throughout Jewish history, there have been thousands of Gedolim, but not every Gadol is a transformative figure. The Vilna Gaon and his Talmid, Rav Chaim of Volozhin, were transformative figures. The entire mesorah of Litvishe Yeshivas and the Litvishe world came from the Gaon and his disciple. The Baal Shem Tov was a transformative figure. He introduced Chassidus into the world. Rav Yisroel Salanter was a transformative figure because he started a movement called the Mussar movement. Rav Aharon Kotler was a transformative figure because he changed the face of America and indeed the world.
Rav Ovadia Yosef was a historic transformative figure because he transformed Israeli society. Sephardim in Eretz Yisrael were at best second-class citizens, if not third-class citizens. They were discriminated against. They were abused. They were the down-trodden of society. Rav Ovadia Yosef, single-handedly, resuscitated an entire community within Klal Yisrael. Today, Sephardim are perhaps the most powerful group in Israel. Rav Aharon Feldman (current Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel) said that when he came to Eretz Yisrael fifty or sixty years ago, there were just a handful of Sephardim learning in yeshiva. All the Yeshivas were either Litvishe or Chassidishe Yeshivas, but they were all Ashkenazic. Today, there are thousands and thousands of Sephardic young men learning in Yeshivot. That can be credited to Rav Ovadia Yosef.
But it was not only the Chareidi world that Rav Ovadia impacted. Rav Ovadia had a tremendous influence on the entire Sephardic community – Dati, Chiloni, Charedi – it does not make a difference. The proof of the matter is that the turnout at his funeral could not have come from the frum world alone.
According to the secular press, there were 850,000 people at his funeral! According to the frum press, it was closer to 1,000,000. That is either 14 or 17 percent of the Jewish population of Israel! There are 6,000,000 Jews in Eretz Yisrael. The estimates of the size of Rav Ovadia’s funeral ranged from 14 to 17 percent of the Jewish population. Projecting these percentages to America with 350,000,000 people would be a funeral procession with 47 million people coming to the levaya.
That is what happened. I have a friend living in Ramot, a suburb of Jerusalem. He wrote to me with a description of his experience. He boarded a bus trying to come into Yerushalayim for the funeral. There were 100 buses backed up trying to get into Yerushalayim. He had to walk 3 miles up hill just to get into the city and then he had to walk another mile to get at least close to Porat Yosef, from where the funeral procession departed. The Yeshiva here in Baltimore had a live hook-up of the levaya. Such a diverse group of people were there. There were Chassidim, there were Misnagdim, there were Yeshiva bochrim, Sephardic Yeshiva bochrim, but there were also people that came to that levaya without Yarmulkas – by the thousands! Chilonim! It is because of what he did for them.
They may never have seen a Yabia Omer in their life but this was a man they knew cared for them, a person who could speak to the biggest Talmid Chochom and yet he could also speak to the simplest Jew. “From your wood-choppers to those who draw water.” (Devorim 29:10). He cared for them. He worried for them. He gave them money. He elevated them. He went to them. He spoke to them. He made them feel “You are somebody.” He did this all with great Mesiras Nefesh.
One of the stories mentioned in the Hespedim which I heard in the Yeshiva was that 14 years ago, he had a heart attack. He went to the hospital and the doctors wanted to perform emergency bypass surgery. He said, “I need to go home for three hours and then I will return for the surgery.” He had just suffered a heart attack and he told the doctors he needed three hours before they could proceed. What did he go back home for, for those three hours? There was a woman, an agunah, who he wanted to permit to remarry. He was in the middle of writing a lengthy Teshuva and he had to finish the Teshuva. He did this at the risk of his life. He did not know for sure if he would survive the surgery and therefore if the Teshuva was not finished, the woman would remain an agunah. Therefore, he went home to finish writing the Teshuva.
People throughout Eretz Yisrael felt this love he had for them. There are Iranians in the Yeshiva that I am confident never met Rav Ovadia Yosef. They were sitting there during the levaya hookup crying for someone they never met. He was not only Maran of the Sephardic world. He was the father of the Sephardic world. That is why men, women, and children lined the streets of Yerushalayim crying for him. You cry when your father dies. That is what he was. He was the father figure of Sephardic Jewry.
There are many clichés that are usually said during eulogies. “We are orphaned, our father is gone.” “Woe to the ship who loses its captain.” “Who will give us his replacement?” These are expressions of speech. With Chacham Ovadia, they are literally true. Yesomim Hayeenu v’Ain Av. He is the father – we have no more father. “Woe to the ship…” Who is going to lead the Sephardic world now? They have lost their captain. “Who will give us his replacement?” A man like this comes along maybe every 300 years!
His sons are great Talmidei Chachomim. But not like this. This was someone who comes along once in many generations. There is talk of “a 100-year flood” – this is a “200-year Gadol“. If I had to pick one pasuk that summarizes Chacham Ovadia, it would be the pasuk at the end of Koheles [12:9]: “And besides being wise, Koheles also imparted knowledge to the people, he listened, and sought out, and arranged many proverbs.”
Shlomo HaMelech was the wisest of all men, but even more praiseworthy than the fact that he was wise, was that he taught the people, he made Torah accessible to the masses, and he created and spoke with many proverbs. This is how Rav Ovadia used to speak. He would not give lofty discourses, which would be comprehensible only to the “cream of the crop.” He spoke to the masses in a language that they understood and appreciated.
One of the other clichés that we use is “woe to us that we have lost and will never find again.” That could aptly be said on HaGaon HaTzadik HaRav HaChacham HaRav Ovadia Yosef, zecher Tzadik, l’Bracha.
Transcribed by David Twersky; Jerusalem [email protected]
Technical Assistance by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, MD [email protected]
This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Series on the weekly Torah portion. A listing of the halachic portions for Parshas Lech Lecha is provided below:
- # 028 – Conversion (Geirus)
- # 070 – Bris Milah: The Metzizah Controversy
- # 119 – Conversion for Ulterior Motives
- # 166 – The Childless Couple in Halacha
- # 212 – Non-Jews and the Mitzvah of Kibbud Av
- # 256 – Mohel and Baby: Who Goes to Whom
- # 302 – The Mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisroel
- # 346 – Trading Terrorists for Hostages
- # 390 – Geirus — Mitzvah, Reshus, or Issur?
- # 434 – Anesthesia During Milah
- # 478 – Sandik — Can You Change Your Mind?
- # 522 – Calling Avraham, Avrum
- # 566 – Learning Vs. Saving A Life
- # 610 – The Widow & the Divorcee: How Long Must they wait to remarry
- # 654 – Sonei Matonos Yichye – Refusing Gifts
- # 698 – Did the Avos Keep the Torah?
- # 742 – Can You Change Your Mazel?
- # 786 – The On-Time vs. the Delayed Bris
- # 830 – Standing for A Chosen and Kallah At The Chupah
- # 874 – Saving Some-One’s Soul- How Far Must You Go?
- # 918 – Hidur Mitzvah – How Important?
- # 961 – Tying Shoes – Not As Simple As You Think
- #1005 – Inviting People to a Bris – Good Idea or Bad?
- #1049 – Honoring Your Wife
- #1092 – The Baal Teshuva Who Wants To Convert His Non-Jewish Girlfriend
- #1135 – “Schar Pe’sios” – Should You Walk Or Drive To Shul (on weekdays)
- #1178 – Shabbos Milah of A Child Whose Parents Are Not Shomrei Shabbos
- #1222 – Milah For The Son of a Jewish Father and a Non Jewish Mother
- #1266 – The Syrian Sefardic Community’s Ban on Conversion
- #1310 – Giving Gifts to Non-Jews
- #1354 – Should I Stay in the US to Take Care of My Parents or Make Aliya to Eretz Yisroel?
- #1398 – Meshaneh Makom Meshaneh Mazel – Changing Your Mazel
- (2019) – The Importance of Always Staying With The Same Host
A complete catalogue can be ordered from the Yad Yechiel Institute, PO Box 511, Owings Mills MD 21117-0511. Call (410) 358-0416 or e-mail [email protected] or visit http://www.yadyechiel.org/ for further information.