The Gemara in Sanhedrin (99b) includes among those who have no share in the World to Come one who demeans a talmid chacham. Rabbeinu Yonah in Sha'arei Teshuva explains the severity of the punishment: One who embarrasses a talmid chacham causes a Chilul HaTorah by reducing the light of the Torah descending to the world.
Rav Chaim Volozhin in Nefesh HaChaim adds an astounding chiddush based on Rabbeinu Yonah: Even someone who speaks derogatorily of a student learning Torah lo lishma is in the category of mevazeh talmid chacham because he makes it less likely for that student of Torah to develop into a genuine talmid chacham, and thereby potentially reduces the light of Torah.
If so, then one who makes it more likely that others become talmidei chachamim constitutes a Kiddush HaTorah.
By that measure, HaRav HaGaon Rav Ovadiah Yosef, zt"l, was the greatest Kiddush HaTorah in recent centuries. No Torah giant, at least since the Vilna Gaon, inspired so many to aspire to greatness in Torah by his example alone.
His imprint on Jewish history will be eternal. A secular Israeli politician commented recently that two hundred years from now, when someone asks, "Who was Shimon Peres?" the likely answer will be, "A politician who lived in the time of Rav Ovadiah."
Rav Ovadiah remained very much a man of the people, trading jokes and his famous slaps with the simple workingmen, who were the primary audience for most of public shiurim. He never forgot his impoverished beginnings. His father removed him before bar mitzvah from yeshiva to work in his grocery store, and only relented when the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Porat Yosef, Rav Ezra Attiyah, offered himself as a worker in place of the young ilui.
Because Rav Ovadiah dwelt amidst his nation in such intimacy, thousands of such working people registered their sons for yeshivos and prayed that their sons would become talmidei chachamim like Maran Rav Ovadiah.
I once asked Rabbi Aharon Betzalel, a prolific young talmid chacham, why he was willing to subject himself to overwhelming pressures – mortgaging his small apartment, collecting money for gas every night in the Itzkowitz shul in Bnei Brak – in order to create a cheder for sons of ba'alei teshuva in an area near Netanya where none exists. He told me that as a young boy his father used to take him to the lectures of Rav Ovadiah in Jerusalem's Bukharian neighborhood.
"Even as Rishon LeTzion, Rav Ovadiah did not consider it beneath him to teach three or four sleepy baalebatim," Rabbi Bezalel said, "Why should I consider it beneath me to do whatever has to be done to bring Torah to other Jews?"
Stories of Rav Ovadiah's literally unfathomable command of every aspect of Torah proliferate. Here's one. Rabbi Yehoshua Hartman, author of the Gur Aryeh Chumash and numerous other annotated volumes of the Maharal's writings once presented his neighbor Rav Ovadiah, with his latest work. As he was leaving Rav Ovadiah's home, Rabbi Hartman asked him about the Maharal's stature in psak halacha.
Rav Ovadiah replied that where the commentators on Shulchan Aruch cite the Maharal, they nearly always declare the halacha to be like him, and promptly rattled off forty such examples on the spot. A computer could have produced all citations of the Maharal in the commentaries on Shulchan Aruch as quickly. But no algorithm could have figured out where the Maharal was cited l'halacha and where not.
Every Sephardi bochur who opens a Gemara today can relate dozens of such stories of Rav Ovadiah's breadth of knowledge, and harbors the secret ambition to be the next Rav Ovadiah. He is the hero that all seek to emulate. Largely because of him, their ranks today are in the tens of thousands.
Rav Ovadiah's entire life was shaped by a single, clear vision – to return the crown of Torah to its former prominence among the descendants of the Rambam and the author of Shulchan Aruch, Rav Yosef Caro. That vision was expressed in his approach to psak halacha and in the founding of the Shas party.
To a remarkable degree, the son of a humble grocer lived to witness the fulfillment of his dream.
Making Every Moment Count
"Do teshuva one day before your death," Chazal teach (Pirkei Avos 2:10). The talmidim of Rebbi Eliezer asked, "Does a man know the day of his death?" He replied, "How much more so should you return today, for perhaps you will die tomorrow. [And in this fashion] all your days will be in teshuva" (Shabbos 153a).
Chazal enjoin us in numerous places to live each day with an awareness of possibly imminent death. The perception of the future as an endless expanse of time, they knew, is one of the tools of the yetzer. In yeshivos, for instance, if one did not learn well or diligently today, it is always possible to tell oneself, "I'll learn well tomorrow." And so too for an entire zman.
When we are relatively young (a group in which I no longer include myself), we take our lives for granted, unless something shocks us out of our reverie. I received such a shock last week.
I picked up a neighbor hitching out of the neighborhood, and mentioned that I sit next to the internal administrator of the yeshiva where he teaches in shiur every morning. He replied by asking, "Did you hear about the tragedy involving our Executive Director?" I panicked. I knew that the yeshiva's executive director was Rabbi Gershon Binyamin Burd, who used to come to us for Shabbos as a student at Ohr Somayach, more than a decade ago.
Nothing computed. I remembered Reb Gershon as a tall, physically powerful young man, and what a handsome couple he made with his kallah Batya, who like him came from a Russian-speaking background.
He and Batya were alone on a secluded beach, celebrating his fortieth birthday, on Erev Shabbos, 30 Tishrei, when Reb Gershon, a former lifeguard, decided to take a short swim. He was not prepared for the sudden wave that sent a rock or some floating degree crashing against the back of his neck, knocking him unconscious. Underwater for fifteen minutes, he nevertheless battled for his life for forty hours.
REB GERSHON'S SUDDEN PASSING teaches us how tenuous is our grasp on life. But his life teaches us something far more important aw well: How to live as if every day could be the last.
From the time he first walked into a class in Chicago on the Ten Commandments given by Rabbi Doni Deutsch, Gershon was insatiable. Shortly after becoming mitzvah observant, he determined to make a Mincha minyan in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield, where he worked. Somehow he made it happen.
Reb Gershon carried almost the entire financial responsibility for Yeshivas Bircas HaTorah in Jerusalem's Old City, yet still managed to learn two, and often three, sedarim a day. He conducted almost all his yeshiva business by email, sleeping only a few hours a night.
Unlike most hyper-efficient, driven people, however, Reb Gershon was described as the "warmest, most positive person I knew," someone who always turned the conversation to the other party, and left every one with whom he spoke uplifted. A bear hug was his trademark greeting. He was more than willing to carry the burden of maintaining old friendships, and expressed his hakaros tov to all those who helped him along the way, often and for years after.
Only after his passing, did numerous stories of his acts of chesed, hidden even from his wife, come to light.
One reason that he was able to raise money by email, said an old chavrusah, was that just seeing the name Gershon Binyamim Burd, whether on a personal email or mass mailing, caused memories of his "warmth, sincerity, and humility" to flow.
Rabbi Nissim Tagger, Rosh Yeshivas Bircas HaTorah, and Rabbi Asher Baruch Wegbreit, the Mashgiach, let Reb Gershon eulogize himself from emails he had sent them within days prior of his tragic drowning. To Rabbi Tagger he sent a teshuva of Rabbi Avigdor Nebentzal, rav of the Old City, containing the fifth different approach Reb Gershon had offered to the sugya to which Rabbi Tagger devoted his last shiur klali prior to Yom Kippur.
After fifteen years of non-stop learning, he was still asking Rabbi Tagger for eitzos in how to grow in learning. On a personal note, he told his Rosh Yeshiva that he was being more "warm and fuzzy" with his five children, the oldest a boy of nine. Less than an hour before his drowning, he wrote Rabbi Wegbreit of his eagerness for the new mussar vaad beginning on Sunday, and that he was contemplating how to apply Rabbeinu Yonah's eitzah to break a bad middah by going to the opposite extreme. He concluded with the famous quote from the Vilna Gaon that the whole purpose of our lives in this world is to repair our defective middos.
Reb Gershon's commitment to Bircas HaTorah was total. A recent email to the Rosh Yeshiva about a possible fundraising trip to Toronto began, "I'm more than happy to do whatever the Rosh Yeshiva wants – period." He wanted anyone walking into the yeshiva to feel immediately that Bircas HaTorah would be the ideal place to learn. Not a burned out light bulb escaped his attention. And despite his devotion to seder, he somehow always managed to be the first to greet anyone walking in for the first time.
I sit next to the yeshiva's internal administrator, Reb Reuvan Lewenstein, in my morning shiur. He described emails from Reb Gershon noting a stain in a Shabbos table cloth or an item left on the bulletin board for more than the allotted two days. My friend hired someone to wipe off the counter in the coffee room every hour to spare Reb Gershon agmas nefesh.
There was so much Reb Gershon burned to do. He told an old friend he met in the Old City over Chol HaMoed Sukkos how blessed he felt in his learning, to be living in Eretz Yisrael, in his beautiful family, and to have a job he loved.
His too short life obligates all of us to internalize and apply its lesson (in the words of the Rabbi Wegbreit): "If you are eager to grow and prepared to work at it, you'll blossom."