Forgiving HaRav Ovadia
Harav Ovadia Yosef passed away yesterday….and this morning’s headlines are full of “The Largest Funeral Israel has Ever Seen” and “We are Orphans who have lost their Father” and “We loved him, but not as much as he loved us and every Jew!”
But to tell you the truth, over the past few months I actually haven’t been feeling so much love towards Harav Ovadia.
That’s because HaRav Ovadia wasn’t only a great rabbi, a halachic genius, and one of the most successful Jewish outreach rabbis in Jewish history. He was also the spiritual leader of a political party. And in that capacity, a few months back HaRav Ovadia fired some sharp arrows over at my sector of Israeli society—the National-Religious, knit-kippah crowd. And it hurt.
So I went from feeling respect and warm fondness for Rav Ovadia to feeling narrowed-eyed fury towards him.
This meant that over the past few months, emails would arrive in my Inbox beseeching me to pray for a complete and speedy recovery for Harav Chaim Ovadia Yosef ben Gorjia, and I would ignore them with smug vengeance.
And I assumed that all of knit-kippah-niks were not forgiving Harav Ovadia, just like me…
But I realized I was wrong when we visited the succah of old knit-kippah friends of ours, and the wife, who is one of the people I admire most in the world, said a sincere prayer for the health of “Harav Chaim Ovadia Yosef ben Gorjia.”
And then I attended the parent-teacher meetings at my kids’ knit-kippah schools last week, and in all four of my children’s classrooms “Harav Chaim Ovadia Yosef ben Gorjia” was written in large letters on the whiteboard so the kids would pray for his recovery.
So as I chomped on a piece of pizza after 4 brain-numbing back-to-back parent-teacher meetings, I thought about all those proud Israeli knit-kippah-niks forgiving Harav Ovadia for the sharp arrows he had sent our way, and I thought about how “a person who overcomes his anger, all of his sins are forgiven,” and I decided I would try to forgive Harav Ovadia too. Well, not really forgive him…I mean how could I ever forgive him after he said what he had said? But at least I would pray for him. So I put my pizza down on the tray, and whispered, “Please bless Harav Chaim Ovadia Yosef ben Gorjia with a speedy recovery.” And then I picked up my pizza again and continued eating.
And over the days that followed, a few times I was paying for a package of rice or was reading a magazine on a park bench or sitting on the bus when a dark-skinned, be-scarved savta called out “And a refuah shlema to Harav Chaim Ovadia Yosef ben Gorjia!” and I diplomatically responded “Amen!”
But I still felt angry at Harav Ovadia. I was just being, as Israelis say, “Large.”
And then yesterday morning, four hours before Rav Ovadia passed away, I was praying alongside a large crowd of women at the grave of the Zviller Rebbe when a highly-agitated colorfully-dressed Moroccan woman came bounding into the crowd and called out, “They sent me to tell all the women here to pray for HaRav Ovadia! His systems have collapsed! Maran, don’t leave us! We cannot live without you! Hashem, make his system work again! Make his system work again!”
And I looked around me and saw that the women around me were crying. And more surprisingly, I was crying too…Maran, don’t leave us. Hashem, please have mercy.
And that whole morning I walked around with a heavy heart… I told the cashier at the health-food market and at the stationary store to “pray for Harav Ovadia, his systems have collapsed” and they promised that they would.
And after Harav Ovadia was called to the Yeshiva shel Maalah at 1:32 PM, I spent hours listening to the radio eulogies of Harav Ovadia, including the one from Harav Yaakov Ariel, one of the leading rabbis of the knit-kippah world, who proclaimed, “Everyone calls him “Gadol Hador,” the greatest rabbi of the generation, but it’s not true. He was the “Gadol HaDorei Dorot,” the greatest rabbi we’ve had in many generations!” And I was crying, as I did yet again when I stood among the 850,000 last night to pay my final respects to the rabbi I had so recently been so angry at, and now loved.
The funeral was an awe-inspiring event I will never forget for as long as I live. It wasn’t only attended by Sephardi Charedi Shas-nikim. And it wasn’t only attended by the Ashkenazi Charedim. And it wasn’t only attended by the religious and traditional Sephardim who revered Harav Ovadia like a king.
There were also many Ashkenazi knit-kippah-niks, like me, who had felt the sting of those sharp arrows a few months ago, and decided that just like your father sometimes gets angry at you, and you still love him, the same was true of Harav Ovadia zts”l.
To me, the funeral felt sort of like standing at Mt. Sinai yet again. But instead of receiving the Torah, we were standing together to honor a man who was Torah.
At the funeral, Harav Aryeh Deri addressed Harav Ovadia directly, “40 years ago we stood here on these steps of Yeshivat Porat Yosef, you and I. Back then there were only a few hundred Sephardi yeshiva students in all the the Land of Israel, and your pain was obvious. And now, look—hundreds of thousands…I feel like an orphan more than when my own father died. Rabenu, don’t abandon us…”
His son, Harav David, spoke about his father’s first heart attack, “Abba refused to undergo the catheterization, and demanded to first of all return home for 3 hours. He explained, ‘I’m in the middle of writing a halachic ruling about an agunah, a wife who has been abandoned by her husband, and who will help her if I don’t come back from the operation?”
And in his eulogy, Harav Yisrael Meir Lau (whose son was just elected chief rabbi along with Rav Ovadia’s son) explained, “Maran wasn’t the rabbi of one sector, but rather of all of Israel. Look at this funeral, what a true demonstration for the honor of Torah. The Jewish people knows to whom they should grant true honor.”
“כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל יִבְכּוּ אֶת הַשְּׂרֵפָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂרַף ה”
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