The Chief Rabbi, the Rishon Le’Tzion, Rabbi Uziel
On the 24th of Elul, we mark 70 years since the passing of the Chief Rabbi and Rishon Le’Tzion, Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel (1880-1953). Apparently, Rabbi Uziel was the greatest of the rabbis of his generation in judgment of halakhic ruling for the public at the time of the state’s founding, and the Ingathering of the Exiles. With his great Torah wisdom, he correctly comprehended reality, and his extraordinarily balanced rulings laid solid foundations for the continued elucidation of halakha regarding arising questions.
His character traits were also especially noble and refined. He was not tainted by desire for money, honor, or nepotism. Along with his tremendous scholarship and diligence, he was friendly to people. He loved peace, and succeeded in making peace between husband and wife, and between rival factions. Though he had clear positions on many issues, thanks to his lofty character traits and pursuit of peace, even opponents could not quarrel with him. His obvious rabbinic and halakhic greatness led to his appointment as substitute for the Rishon Le’Tzion Rabbi Yaakov Meir, and later as Chief Rabbi, he ran unopposed.
It was clear he was the right candidate, the only choice. Thus, he represented the Torah and all Jewry with honor and modesty.
Rabbi Uziel was born into prestigious families descended from the exiles from Spain. After the Expulsion, the Uziel family moved to Salonika in Greece, then part of the Ottoman Empire. A few generations before Rabbi Uziel, the family made aliyah to Jerusalem, where Rabbi Uziel was born to his father Rabbi Yosef Raphael, who was president of the rabbinical court of the Sephardic community there.
His mother’s family were also descendants of Spanish exiles who migrated to Turkey, and produced great and important rabbis. Rabbi Uziel was the great-grandson of the Rishon Le’Tzion Rabbi Chaim David Chazan, the son of the Rishon Le’Tzion Rabbi Raphael Chazan, author of the important halachic work ‘Chakrai Lev’. They were originally rabbis in Izmir, then made aliyah, and eventually became Chief Rabbis.
Rabbi Uziel’s Testament
As we approach the day of his passing, it is fitting to study Rabbi Uziel’s ethical will. The headings are not his.
“My final words: I thank Hashem wholeheartedly, in confidential counsel – for causing me to be born into the laps of my holy ancestors, and placing me before my good and upright teachers and rabbis. Together, they showed me the path upon which I should walk, and the actions I should perform during my life on earth. Thanks to them, from my early days of youth, I was dedicated to serving the community, first as teacher and instructor of Torah to students in the ‘Tiferet Yerushalayim Yeshiva’, in the ‘Doresh Tzion’ study hall where I learned in my youth, and afterwards, at the rabbinical school of the ‘Ezra’ organization.
From there, I was taken and placed in the seat of the rabbinate, first in Jaffa-Tel Aviv and the moshavot, afterwards in the important Jewish community of Salonica which, to my sorrow and anguish of soul, was destroyed to its foundations by the defiled and trampling hands of the accursed Nazis, may their name be blotted out, and after that, once again in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and finally in Jerusalem, our holy and glorious city, where I dwell, and hope, with Hashem’s kindness, to continue residing, with sound mind, until my last day.”
His Goals as Rabbi: To Inspire Love of God, Torah, and All Jews
“In these roles I placed before my eyes, and as a lamp for my feet, the following missions: To disseminate Torah among students, to inspire love of Torah and its commandments, the Land of Israel and its holiness, absolute love for every Jewish man and woman, and for the entire nation of Israel, and love of Hashem, the God of Israel.
And to bring peace between every Jewish man and woman, in body and soul, speech and actions, thoughts and heart’s musings, steps and deeds, at home and in the street, in village and city. To bring true peace in the house of Israel, and its family. In all of Israel, all its factions and divisions, and between Israel and their Father in Heaven.”
Love of God and Love of Israel Stem From the Same Source
“These two missions are in truth one, since they both flow from the same source – the living God’s Torah, who is King of Israel, and its Holy One, who gave His nation the Torah of truth, whose ‘ways are pleasant, and all its paths are peace’ (Proverbs 3:17). These two missions are my life’s aspiration and goal. I directed my paths by them, and this was my daily prayer: guide me with Your counsel, lead me on Your paths, and bring peace and truth between all Your people Israel, to love and sanctify Your name.”
Thanks for All the Good Others Have Done For Him
“And now, upon my leave-taking from you, my brothers and sisters, teachers and rabbis, all Israel, to be gathered to my ancestors and people, in tranquil Eden – I hereby sincerely thank the nation as a whole, and each of its individuals, for the great honor, far beyond what I merit due to my poor deeds and wisdom, that you honored me during my lifetime. And for the extensive pleasantness you afforded me by providing me with respectable and comfortable livelihood with generous spirit, whereby I sustained myself and raised my family, may they live, amen.
Request for Forgiveness
Along with this, I ask your complete pardon and forgiveness for any sins, iniquities, harms or insults, if I have sinned against the public or individual, and did not manage to appease them during my life – know and believe that I did not intend this, and that the honor and will of every Jewish man and woman, and especially of public bodies, are extremely dear and precious to me. But since man is formed from clay, it is possible that some careless word escaped my mouth, or I did some act offending the dignity or causing monetary loss to someone, and I ask you, saying: Please forgive me, and thereby restore my soul to its repose.
And I myself say before God and man, that I harbor no grievances against any Jew. And if, indeed, there were those who spoke critically before me or behind my back, I immediately forgave them, and now I forgive and pardon completely and absolutely every man and woman, and the entire people Israel, and say to them: ‘Peace, peace, both to the near, and to the far.’”
We Merited to See the First Shoots of Redemption
“I will add and say: Hear me, my brothers, children of my nation, and may Hashem hear you – a great and wondrous merit was revealed in our generation, with the revelation of Hashem’s hidden strong hand over His chosen people Israel, gathering our dispersal and elevating us to our ancestral land, until we dwell in it, a people dwelling on its soil.
This Ingathering of Exiles, occurring over recent decades, was the kernel for the sprouting of redemption. And when the appointed time arrives, from before the Creator of worlds who chooses His nation and holy lands, He will instill a spirit of counsel and valor in the heart of all our brave pioneers. He will grant them a crown of victory, and give us this land which He swore to our forefathers, and us.”
Observance of Torah Will Bring Our Success and World Peace
“Remember this and consider deeply, know and believe that it was the hand of Hashem that accomplished this – to fulfill His word through His holy prophets, for the eternal peace of the people of Israel, and the peace of the entire world. For He conditions it on Israel’s observance of the words of the Torah and its commandments, through which the holy name of Israel and its Redeemer will be sanctified, and all nations will know Hashem’s unity and faith. It will bring true peace to our camp, and lasting peace between all peoples, and they will not do evil or destruction, kingdom against kingdom, nation against nation, for ‘the world will be filled with knowledge of Hashem, like water covers the sea.’
And I conclude with a blessing, saying: May Hashem our God be with us, as He was with our forefathers, may He not abandon us, nor forsake us, to incline our hearts to Him to walk in all His ways and observe all His commandments, for our good, all our days.”
A Call to Strengthen in Torah and Mitzvot
“Know this, all the house of Israel, who live in the cherished Land, which the Lord gave to our fathers and to us, and return to His holy Torah, to study and teach it to our children after us, from the faithful source, from the mouth of Moshe Rabbeinu, and our holy prophets, and the Sages of the Torah in all generations, and those who live among us in our generations – keep its commandments correctly, and its laws and judgments in full, because the judgments of God are true, righteous altogether, and always remember with love the words of the highest of prophets, the man of God, in his holy Torah, saying: “Then the LORD commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere the LORD our God, for our lasting good and for our survival, as is now the case. It will be therefore to our merit before the LORD our God to observe faithfully this whole Instruction, as He has commanded us” – without any foreign mixture from the statutes of nations, and their faiths.”
Warning Against Discord and Disunity, and Strengthening the Peace and Unity of Israel
Moreover, guard most carefully the peace of the nation and the peace of the state, and love truth and peace, for discord and disunity are the most dangerous enemies, like moths in the house of Jacob and decay in his bones. In contrast, peace and unity are the eternal foundations for the everlasting national existence of the House of Israel, they are the pillars upon which the House of Israel always stands, and they are the conduits of blessing and springs of abundance, the arms of strength and might of the nation of Israel.
Keep these two pillars so you may be strengthened with might and courage, and repel before you all destructive forces surrounding us in a chokehold, to destroy us and erase the name of Israel and its Torah from the face of the earth.
Remove all causes of discord and disunity from our camp and state, and establish in their place, all causes of peace and unity within us, and our camp will be pure and holy, fortified and united – like an impenetrable wall that no destructive force can dominate. And He who makes peace in His heights will shower peace upon us, and bless us as He spoke through His prophet Moshe: ‘Your God has multiplied you until you are today as numerous as the stars in the sky. May the God of your ancestors, increase your numbers a thousand fold, and bless you as promised. Hashem will give might to His people, Hashem will bless His nation with peace.’ Then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing to God as in the days of yore and in the years of old.
And I, your brother, am departing you for eternal life, with blessings of everlasting peace and redemption – with restoration of King David’s royal throne, and the building of Hashem’s Temple in the Holy City, in Jerusalem.
Signed: Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel