Rabbi Mordechai Willig
Rabbi Mordechai Willig

The Vision of Ovadia

Our founding father, Avraham Avinu, came from Bavel (Bereishis 11:27,28). Ibn Ezra states that he was born there (Ramban disagrees), and it was known as Kasdim or Shinar (ibid.) He came to Eretz Yisrael, went briefly to Egypt, returned and lived a long and productive life, and established a large and eternal dynasty (12:1,2,10;13:1;15:5,15;17:4-8).

Harav Ovadia Yosef zt"l traveled in Avraham Avinu's footsteps. Born in Baghdad (Bavel, present- day Iraq) he came to Eretz Yisrael. With his outstanding diligence and phenomenal memory, he achieved an incomparable breadth of Torah knowledge. He served briefly as a rav in Egypt, returned to Eretz Yisrael, and lived a long and productive life.

His meteoric career as a rabbinical judge and chief rabbi was accompanied by a prolific output of responsa. His ten volume Yabia Omer, a classic in its author's lifetime, is written in the style of Sefardic gedolim taken to an unprecedented level.

As his first work, Chazon Ovadia, implies, he was a man of bold vision. His lifetime goal was to restore the glory of the Sefardic heritage, "l'hachzir atara l'yoshna - to return the crown to its original state." He advocated a return to the rulings of Rav Yosef Karo, the sixteenth century author of the Shulchan Aruch, whom he viewed as the authority for Eretz Yisrael, particularly for its Sefardic residence. Notwithstanding powerful opposition from great Sefardic rabbis (see Mimaran Ad Maran by Rabbi B. Lau), his eminent position and his peerless scholarship enabled him to prevail.

However, his vision extended beyond the beis din and beis midrash. He founded Shas, a political party, to restore Torah, pride, and power to the masses of traditional Sefardim, most of whom were not fully observant. Despite the inherent difficulties and challenges of the political arena, he pursued his goal relentlessly, and achieved major success, affecting all of Eretz Yisrael and beyond.

He established a family dynasty; his sons all occupy prominent positions in the Sefardic Torah establishment, including the recently elected Chief Rabbi. His sons in law served as prominent rabbinical judges in the chief rabbinate system. Yet, like Avraham Avinu, he was not only the ancestor of a biological dynasty, but also made many souls, inspiring many to enter under the wings of the Divine Presence (12:5, Rashi).

He commanded the respect of all, and the fierce loyalty of his followers. His homilies, in the Sefardic tradition of sharp expression, which has precedent in Sefer Ovadia, were broadcast to mass audiences who delighted in their content and style, notwithstanding the equally sharp critiques of those unaccustomed to his style and/or opposed to his message.

His halachic decisions were popularized by his sons and others, and have become the final word in many Sefardic circles. They enjoy mass circulation and translation. Rav Ovadia formed strong alliances with many Ashkenazi rabbanim, roshei yeshiva, and Chassidic leaders and courts. Despite differences in halachic decisions, approach to learning, and political issues, they recognized his greatness and uniqueness.

Avraham was known as ha'Ivri (14:13), since he came from across the river (Rashi). He left his homeland and had continuing faith in Hashem (12:4, 15:6), which he relied upon when opposing powerful foes (Be'er Basadeh, cited in Saperstein edition). Avraham was willing to stand alone, on one side, even if the entire world was on the other side (Bereishis Raba 42:8).

Rav Ovadia, like Avraham Avinu, had great faith in Hashem, His Torah and His people. He was unafraid to take bold halachic positions, even if nearly all others disagreed, especially when his psak would help individuals in halachic distress.

His funeral, perhaps unprecedented in its size, demonstrated the reverence and esteem this great scholar and leader enjoyed and deserved. May his example of learning and teaching Torah and service to Klal Yisrael inspire all of us, children of Avraham Avinu, who have benefited from the inestimable lifetime achievements of Harav Ovadia Yosef.

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