Rav Ovadia: Hunger for Torah
Rav Ovadia: Hunger for Torah

From a lecture given to the students of the Merkaz Harav yeshiva. Translated from the Hebrew by R. Sylvetsky.

On one of the many times I went to visit him, this time on the Intermediate Days of Sukkot,  Rav Ovadia Yosef zts"l had just finished the afternoon service. Maran (our teacher and rabbi, a title given to outstanding sages, such as Rav Ovadia Yosef - ed) ascended the steps to his home, accompanied by myself and several others. Upon entering, he sat down at the table covered with his opened books and continued writing about the laws of conversing with a non-Jew on the Sabbath (i.e. asking a non-Jew to perform work forbidden to Jews on the Sabbath - ed.) – this, without removing his coat and hat.

One of his daughters arrived and approached the table with her sons to wish her father a happy holiday, but Maran said, "My daughter, wait a few minutes until I complete this topic." And I, observing this, saw what it means to be someone who is hungry for the words of the Torah, literally hungry. I told his assistant that if I were a teacher in a Talmud Torah for youngsters, I would bring the children to observe this scene, a tableau that reflects his character better than a thousand words could.

"The eye that saw these things rejoices, yet our ears have heard [what has occurred] and our soul mourns [his loss]." (from the Yom Kippur service).

Heaven and earth trembled at the sounding of the voice that called out the passing of Rav Ovadia zts"l.

It was not just the love of Torah, but boundless love for those who studied it. We are used to saying that he who does not spend his time studying Torah is rewarded for respecting those who do.  But that is not the entire picture. Respecting rabbinic sages is in a category all by itself, and includes those who spend their lives laboring over the Torah.

It is known that Maran zts"l was supremely organized in his learning, expressing everything precisely, like Rabbi Meir (a disciple of Rabbi Akiva), about whom  the Talmud brings [a verse from Proverbs 4, here referring to Maran's phenomenal memory] "Let your eyes look straight ahead, and your eyelids look right before you" and who was therefore allowed to write a scroll without checking its written source.

The clock was his daily organizer. But love acts as a catalyst and his love for spreading Torah and his care for those in trouble caused him to find time and place for public issues without letting his mind wander away from his studies.  How he cried in front of the noted head of the Torah Ohr yeshiva, Rabbi Scheinberg zts"l begging the sage to pray for him to achieve success in Torah learning.

Years ago, when he was Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Maran was to appear at a Conference on Talmud Study at The Rav Kook Institute in Jerusalem. Because of a scheduling mixup, Maran had to wait and he walked around the corner to the Merkaz HaRav yeshiva study hall during the afternoon study period  and sat down to learn. Rabbi Yehuda Hazani, zts"l went over to him and asked if Rav Ovadia would be willing to honor them by giving a shiur (Torah lecture) to the yeshiva students. He asked and was told that they were learning the Tractate Shabbat. A few minutes later, Maran delivered a lecture of over an hour on one of the topics in the difficult Tractate being studied at the yeshiva.

He did not only deal with halakha and responsa, one of those close to him once told me that during the "hours that are neither day or night" (Talmudic expression for the time one does not have to study only Torah, which study is mandatory day and night, ed.) he found Maran poring over a book of Jewish mysticism. When Maran saw him, he asked that person not to tell anyone about it. In our generation, when what should be esoteric studies are available to all, and when that which was revealed to all (the Torah laws, ed.) has become esoteric, one should emulate the behavior of our Great Sages, the Great Rabbis of Israel, who kept the hidden, hidden and the revealed, revealed.

"And a new king arose over Egypt who did not know of Yosef (said about Joseph, Exodus 1, ed.)". The commentators ask how it was possible for the new king not to have heard of Joseph, the brilliant economics advisor who saved Egypt, who was considered incomparably wise? It seems that the answer lies right there, in his unusual level of brilliance, which gave the impression that it was legendary and not real. That is why those who had the opportunity to see Maran must tell future generations that there really was a Yosef, a reality that blossomed from a background of Torah study under conditions of dire poverty, years of toil, with undying love of Torah. "If a man would give away all his riches for a love" comparable to the love Maran had for Torah, "he would be scoffed at" (paraphrase of a verse in the Song of Songs, 8, ed.).

[As G-d said to the High Priest Aaron when he was jealous of the sacrifices brought by the heads of the tribes] "Your portion is greater than theirs" because you kindle the menorah. The tribes' heads participated in a significant ceremony, the dedication of the Tabernacle, while Aaron took care of daily chores which no one noticed. Sometimes a person loses heart from the lack of appreciation for his efforts. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Aaron, your accomplishments are greater – one page of Talmud after another, day after day.

Maran did not start with videos and satellite beaming, there were no modern media tools then. He shouldered the burden (as is said of the sons of Aaron who transported the Holy Tabernacle in the desert, ed.) and not just in the work of "your laws are music to my ears", but literally. He walked from one synagogue to another on Shabbat to speak before the simple Jews in poorer areas, eventually succeeding in reviving not only Sephardic Jewry, but the whole topic of halakha.

For years, my father, zts"l (the late Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi Avraham Shapira who was the previous head of Merkaz Harav yeshiva) and Maran were in touch, starting from the days when they both served as judges (dayanim) on the Jerusalem Rabbinic Court, later in the Great Rabbinic Court and during the period in the Chief Rabbinate. Maran told us that my father zts"l borrowed a new book from him (they were both penniless at the time, ed.) and returned it months later in well-worn condition. When Maran saw it, he said "You don't have to recompense me, its death was caused by its being used (a jioking reference to the rule of meita meichamat melakha, the halakha about a borrowed farm animal that dies while working in the field, ed.)".

Maran loved Merkaz Harav Yeshiva and its students. Once, in his later years, he came to the memorial for my father zts"l and eulogized him at length, talking about how Torah scholars must reach out to the people, and adding: "Napoleon told his soldiers in the French army that anyone who doesn't aspire to be a general, should not be a soldier either".

That is how it is with Torah. One must aspire to greatness in Torah, aspire to be a Torah Giant of one's generation.

In his speech, he said that Rabbi Shapira was himself an integral part of the Torah (chaticha d'Orayta), words that also reflect upon he who uttered them.

Those words truly describe the character and authority of Maran zts"l, he was an integral part of the Torah, of the love of Torah and its students.

May his merits protect us and envelop us in a sukkah of peace.