Today, Israel and the Jewish people lost a great leader, Rav Ovadia Yosef.
Rav Ovadia was a child prodigy, publishing his first commentary on the Bible at age 9. He could have stayed in the study halls and closed himself in the Orthodox Jewish world, but he set out to make the world a better place.
He was a pioneer in championing the rights of marginalized populations. He started at home, with the Sefardi Jewish population (Jews from Arab lands), setting up yeshivot (Jewish religious academies) for them, and going on to establish Shas, a political party to give them a voice in Israeli governance.
But Rav Ovadia was not content to simply push for rights for his natural constituency. He went on to provide Jewish answers to issues faced by other populations. He found Jewish answers for widows who lost their husbands in the Yom Kippur War; to Jewish populations in Russia and Ethiopia to reclaim their roots; to Israeli farmers who wanted to follow Jewish law without losing their livelihood.
He spoke his mind, even when it went against his own Sefardi constituency, the religious or political right, or the Israeli government. He weighed issues from afresh, and seemingly changed his stance when conditions changed.
Today, as I watched his faithful pray for his recovery, I was reminded of a story of another great Rabbi, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. Rabbi Yehuda lived in Beit Shearim for most of his life. However, when his health started to fade, he moved to Tzippori, the “Big City”, where there were better doctors. He lived there for quite some time, heading the Rabbinical court and leading the Jewish population which lived in that mixed city. He, too, like Rav Ovadia, had to deal with the issues of modernity and finding a Jewish way through modern issues.
His illness finally caught up with him in Tzippori where, by that time, he had a large following of students. As Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi lay in his home in Tzippori suffering from his illness, his students stood outside of his house praying for his recovery. (I imagine it must have looked like some of the pictures today taken outside of the room of Rav Ovadia.) Inside the house, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s maid was attending to him. She saw how he suffered and how his soul longed to be free of his body. She understood, however, that G-d would not take Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi away from his praying students. The maid ascended to the roof above the second story with a ceramic pot. She took the pot and threw it to the ground. You can imagine the loud sound the pot made as it shattered. The students, not knowing what was going on, gasped at hearing the noise from the pot. In that moment, no one was praying, and Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi took his last breath. His soul was freed from the suffering of his body.
Today, Rav Ovadia’s soul has been freed from his physical existance. The Jewish people has lost a great leader.
Next time you are in Israel, visit Tzippori and pay tribute to great Jewish leaders from the past, the challenges they faced and the legacies they left behind.
May the remembrance of righteous people be a blessing for us all.