It is difficult to comprehend the loss the Jewish world and the world at large have just experienced with the passing of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, zt”l. Many simply refuse to accept the loss because of its immediacy and intimacy to their lives. The Sephardi legions to which he returned their patrimony of pride looked to him as a father figure and an absolute spiritual guide; they were orphaned with his death. At Sunday’s service marking the end of shivah, nearly 100,000 people came from all groups of Judaism to honor the great Rav and to share communally the experience of losing a loved one. To the mourners, anyone who follows Rav Yosef may seem like a faint shadow.
The junction of Shmuel Hanavi and Bar-Ilan streets where Sunday’s service took place is the site which in years past became notorious for wretched encounters on Shabbat between a volatile mixture of the chareidim, the anti-religious and the police. The chareidim of Jerusalem wanted the junction closed on Shabbat; the non-religious, some coming from as far as Tel Aviv, wanted this thoroughfare, amongst the most important in the city, to remain open on Shabbat; and the police on horseback with truncheons looked far more like Cossacks than Jews trying to maintain a semblance of order. This corner knew little of the sanctity of Shabbat or ahavat Yisrael during these protests.
Closing off streets in Jerusalem is not an easy matter but Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s grandeur merited it, not once but twice during the last week. The streets of the capital city generally run in serpentines and offer little space for ceremonies but this giant intersection of Bar Ilan and Shmuel HaNavi is an exception. There in constructed tiers sat illustrious Rabbis set like diadems in a crown of Torah. Some were honored with the privilege to eulogize the great Rav; all came to give kavod to the Rav, the great posek of the generation and the catalyst for the renaissance of pride, culture, and religious traditions Sephardim have experienced during this generation. A multitude of Jews came to find comfort and lessons in the eulogies and somehow continue.
I was not there Sunday at the corner of Bar Ilan and Shmuel HaNavi. At that time, I instead recollected a life changing memory I had of Rav Yosef that simultaneously was every bit as public and as intimate as that experienced by the 100,000 Jews in attendance.
In Elul of 1996 I was living in Jerusalem. Selichot for Ashkenazim had not yet begun but for Sephardim, selichot started with the beginning of Elul and was already in full swing. To confess, I REALLY was not looking forward to the last week of Elul when we Ashkenazim start reciting selichot and to this day I still find the service somewhat challenging. A close Sephardi friend when hearing of my ambivalence to the “whole selichot thing” decided to give me an experience that would change my perspective. And it did.
The story changes neighborhoods from Katamon where my friend and I lived to the other side of Jerusalem, to the old Bukharan Quarter. Today, the Bukharan Quarter, like much of Jerusalem, has experienced a face-lift and is gentrified with expensive apartments, lacking the color of its not too distant past. In 1996, however, the Bukharan Quarter was much like it had been for the past century: crowded, run-down, dirty. There in the Quarter stands a large Beit Knesset where my perception of selichot changed and it was there too that I had, to date, my only direct encounter with Malchut.
A previous column, appropriately entitled “Malchus,” related the story of a Rosh Yeshivah in Jerusalem who, during an Elul shiur, said that the British have a great advantage over the Americans in understanding the concept of Malchut because the British public has the opportunity to witness the regal dignity of its Royal Family. He added that if the spectacle of the monarchy of England was merely the slightest shadow of Malchus, true Malchus is incomprehensible. The Rav was right; I am just a big kid from Brooklyn with no clue about Kings and the only Queens I know is a neighboring borough. That night, like in a fairy tale, I saw the unbelievable; I saw that Bukharan Quarter Beit Knesset become a palace with royal guards and a royal entourage; with trumpeters and courtiers. And, of course, there was a king in royal raiment beneath a kingly crown.
My friend took me to selichot at this particular Beit Knesset knowing of the events to be and permitted them to build to a literal crescendo without spoiling the surprise. The Beit Knesset, not distinguished in appearance or location, has a distinguished leader, a Rav Yosef, son of Rav Ovadiah Yosef. The interior was surpisingly large and absolutely packed. Men filled both the main level and the entire ezrat nashim. The space was hot and humid, reminiscent of a New York City subway car in summer when the air conditioning gives out. I was in the ezrat nashim, shvitzing, uncomfortable, and, if I remember correctly, kvetching about the heat, the late hour, everything. And then magic… I see the image clearly despite the 17 years that have passed. Entering the Beit Knesset, borne aloft in a throne carried by four men, was Rav Ovadiah Yosef, the Rishon L’Zion. The honored men brought him to the bimah where he sat in his throne. What immediately struck me about him was how small in height he was. His legend led me to expect a towering man to match his towering intellect. But Jews are not limited by the laws of nature. Notwithstanding his lack of physical stature he had a remarkable and commanding presence, distinct and palpable despite the distance from me in the balcony to his place of primacy on the bimah. He wore a magnificent embroidered kaftan which looked bejeweled and worthy of a king. Atop his head was the head-covering worn by distinguished Sephardi rabbis which looked quite like a crown on him. The colored lenses of his spectacles only added to his air of exotic mystery and majesty. A king.
Rav Yosef’s court was comprised of dozens of men with long, curled Sephardi shofars which at the appropriate points of the selichot would blare in unison heralding the announcement of the attributes of Hashem. My body shook and I feared my soul would be chased from my body by the energy. I wondered if this was what it was like to be with Joshua at Jericho or further back in time when the children of Israel received the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
And with that night came my one GREAT experience with selichot… and Malchut.
Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel, with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at msolomon@Hamodia.com.