By: Ron Finkelstein
In truth, there really was no choice. For the great luminaries of Israel, Shabbat desecration, which violated strict obedience to the Divine will, is hardly an option. To these sages, the apparent sacrifice of choosing to be marooned in the wilderness is no sacrifice at all. No other option is even entertained.
In his newest work A Legacy of Leaders Volume II, Yehuda Azoulay presents vivid portraits of some of the Sephardic world’s greatest spiritual giants. Their lives, as depicted in this groundbreaking series, are stories of spiritual excellence attained against all odds, of selfless devotion and self-sacrifice to Gd and His people. More importantly, their lives are shining examples of what is expected of us in today’s day and age, despite the formidable spiritual challenges we confront each day of our lives.
”He That Receives Shall Never Forget”
For centuries, wherever we were, whether it was Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Spain, Lebanon or Iraq, we ran the risk of being dissolved into the general society, of losing both our religion and our national identity. As a small minority scattered among a hostile, gentile population, it seemed hardly realistic that our people would retain their faith, practices, values and traditions. It was only a matter of time, it appeared, that the deluge of general society would overtake the small, feeble Jewish communities and destroy their heritage and essence.
The force that thwarted these influences and prevented them from breaching our lines of faith was our rabbis. In every generation, and under all circumstances, the hachamim capably led our people, inspiring them with hope and infusing them with spiritual vitality. Refusing to allow us to just “be,” they insisted that we work to “become” – to become better people and better Jews, even in a world that was hostile to everything Judaism stands for.
A principle of life for us to consider is, “He that gives should never remember and he that receives should never forget.” We, who are on the receiving end of our great leaders’ selfless devotion, must never forget. We bear the obligation to recall and acknowledge the sacrifices, adversities, and hardships that our rabbis throughout the ages have contended with for the sake of the Jewish people.
Yehuda Azoulay’s A Legacy of Leaders series helps ensure that we will never forget. The product of countless hours of exhaustive research, the book is a living testament to the achievements of our hachamim, to how they inspired and elevated us, and how they enabled us to grow as a people and as Jews. It presents vivid biographical portraits of the great rabbis throughout the Sephardic world of yesteryear, the towering figures who, in many ways, erected and fortified the structure of our community today. The book tells uplifting stories of faith and commitment, miracles and wonders, and practical lessons for us to implement in daily life. It demonstrates that in a world of overwhelming negative influences that can easily drown us in its waters, we must rely on our rabbis’ clarity of thought and judgment to guide and direct us.
The Unmatched Power of Faith
The stories told in A Legacy of Leaders teach us how the power of simple faith and unwavering commitment to Torah can withstand the tidal waves of pressure exerted by a secular society. When the faithful service of Gd is a person’s highest priority, nothing can dissuade him from this goal and purpose. The rabbis depicted in this book are living examples of this power of simple and pure faith.
Among the inspiring stories told in these volumes are of a journey taken by Hacham Yosef Haim of Baghdad, also known as the Ben Ish Hai (1832-1909). Before embarking on the trip to Israel, the hacham and the other Jewish travelers arranged with the Arab camel driver that the caravan would not travel on Shabbat. However, when Shabbat approached, the driver refused to stop as he had promised, and insisted on continuing to travel on Shabbat – even if this meant leaving the Jews behind, abandoned in the middle of the searing desert.
The Ben Ish Hai and the other Jewish travelers did not yield. They stopped right where they were, dead in their tracks, and proceeded to settle down and prepare for Shabbat.
They were not intimidated by the driver’s threats, or by the harsh conditions of the desert. Their only concern was Hashem and the strict observance of His laws.
Another chapter in this series tells the story of Rabbi Yaakov Abuchassera (1807-1880), who once stayed overnight in a small city during his travels. As he slept, burglars robbed the hacham’s saddlebags, which contained his manuscripts. Rabbi Yaakov was not disheartened. He said to himself, “If my sefarim [books] are acceptable in the eyes of the Almighty, they will be returned, and if they are not acceptable, then let them be lost.” Later, when the thieves realized what they had stolen, they promptly returned the manuscripts and begged the rabbi for forgiveness.
Rabbi Abuchassera’s sole concern was for Hashem’s honor; his life’s work was done exclusively for Hashem, and not for fame or grandeur. He therefore felt that if his work was unworthy of bringing honor to Gd, it might as well be lost. The rabbi lived not on a stage, seeking the recognition of other people, but rather before the presence of Gd, desiring only to perform His will.
In the secular world, impressing others is the primary goal that motivates people to achieve. They act in a way that will bring themselves acceptance, fame and notoriety. The stories of the hachamim remind us that life is about bringing honor to Gd, not to ourselves. We must determine our course of action out of a desire to fulfill Gd’s will, not to impress our peers.
Pursuit of Excellence
Another quality that is characteristic of our great hachamim is their unrelenting pursuit of excellence. Regardless of how much they achieve and how high they climb, it is never enough. Their work is never completed; throughout their lives, they are engaged in a tireless crusade to do more missvot.
There is a remarkable story recounted in this series, of the renowned Kabbalist Rabbi Yizhak Kaduri (1894-2006), as related by Rabbi Yaakov Hillel shelita, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Hevrat Ahavat Shalom in Jerusalem. Rabbi Hillel recounted that Rabbi Kaduri once handed him an envelope filled with shekels and dollars. The shekels, Rabbi Kaduri instructed, were to be donated toward the rabbi’s yeshivah, but the dollars were “sedah laderech – food for the journey ahead.”
“When I go up to shamayaim (heaven),” Rabbi Kaduri explained, “I want some merit to accompany me.”
The dollars in the envelope were to be distributed as charity after the rabbi’s passing, to provide him with extra merits to accompany him to the next world.
Remarkably, a sadik of Rabbi Kaduri’s stature feared that he would not have enough merits to accompany him in Heaven!
The sadik’s only desire was to do everything he could to sanctify Hashem’s name, regardless of how much he had already accomplished. No matter how many merits he had accrued, it wasn’t enough – he needed more!
“Traditionally,” Azoulay commented, “hachamim have stressed the importance of studying the lives and stories of our sacred leaders. These scholars were pillars of the Jewish world, leading great communities and guiding thousands in the path of the holy Torah.” Preparing this volume was thus a fulfillment of a time-honored tradition of perpetuating the legacy of great rabbis, as the sages in every generation have instructed.
One might, however, still wonder, of what relevance are the lives of these hachamim to us today, in our generation? Is it possible for us to even begin emulating them? Is it practical to live in today’s world with a constant awareness of Hashem’s presence, as these sages did?
The answer is that, indeed, this must be our goal. The rabbis whose lives are chronicled in this work also confronted adversity and pressures from the society around them, much as we do today. The determination and resolve with which they overcame those challenges serves as an example for every Jew to follow. As Azoulay accurately noted, “This book portrays Sephardic hachamim, yet they are all of Klal Yisrael’s gedolim.”
Trapped in the Bottle of Life
Our world can be compared to a fly trapped in an open bottle filled with sugar. Rather than looking up to find its way out of the bottle, the fly gets ensnared by the sweetness and frantically begins to collect all the sugar. That is all it does until one day it dies over it.
The trap that the fly was in was not because of the sugar alone, it is also because it never bothered to look up.
The rabbis constantly urge us to look up, toward Hashem, toward the meaning and purpose of our lives, and not to be trapped by the lure of the “sugar” of the material world. When we study the lives of our spiritual giants, we are reminded that life is not about the “sugar,” but about serving the Almighty. They teach us to rise above the mundane aspects of our world, and make Hashem’s will paramount in our lives.
Among the great achievements of many of the hachamim featured in the book is the founding of Sephardic yeshivot. As such, included in Legacy of Leaders is also a brief history of Sephardic yeshivot
“It is my belief,” says Azoulay, “that we can achieve a strong connection with the history of our people by telling the stories of the Jewish nation’s great scholars. The stories and outlines brought in this book provide a source of inspiration for those who want to emulate the sages of the past.”
The rabbis taught us that our bodies – our hands, legs, eyes, ears, mouth, every organ and limb – do not belong to us. They have been given to us on loan, as tools with which to fulfill the Divine will. We received legs to run to perform missvot, eyes to read works of Torah, ears to obey Gd’s laws, and mouths to speak His praise. Everything we have in this world is given to us temporarily for the purpose of helping us serve Hashem.
The hachamim demonstrated this axiom by devoting all their time and energies to Torah and missvot. They showed that the gift of life comes with the responsibility of purpose. We must learn from these great hachamim not to get caught up in the vanities of life, and to instead utilize every moment to bring sanctity into the world.
There are many fine people who take the fabric of their lives and put it together to make a coat for themselves. If they have extra cloth here or there, that is what they give over to others. These saddikim, however, took the fabric of their lives and gave it to Hashem’s people. They rarely came upon any extra material, for they gave whatever they had to others who needed it.
This is the legacy of our spiritual leaders, the legacy of selflessness and sacrifice, of devoting every ounce of oneself to the mission of bringing the Jewish people closer to Hashem, to guiding them along the path of Torah.
They serve as the mirrors of the Jewish people, providing an accurate reflection of who we are – both individually and communally – and of showing us where we need to improve. They are the ones that protect our people from spiritual oblivion, from falling prey to the lures and pressures of general society. It is our rabbis that have enabled the Jewish nation to retain its core identity and ongoing loyalty to Torah. It is truly because of them that we are able to survive.
Yehuda Azoulay, Founder of the Sephardic Legacy Series has recently launched and informative and interactive website through which he envisions to structure future Sephardic Torah publications. For more information visit www.sephardiclegacy.com
Chronological order of rabbis included in A Legacy of Leaders II:
Hacham Yaakov Culi (Meam Loez)
Hacham Amram Ben-Diwan
Hacham Yizhak Ben-Gualid
Hacham Eliezer Yehezkel Papo (Pele Yoess)
Hacham Abdallah Someah
Hacham Eliyahu Saliman Mani
Hacham Shelomo Aben-Danan
Hacham Rephael Encaoua
Hacham Shimon Agasi
Hacham Yehuda Moshe Fetaya
Hacham Ezra Hamway
Hacham Yosef Yedid Halevi
Hacham Ben-Sion Mordechai Yehezkel Hazan
Hacham Sadkah Hutzin
Hacham Yehoshua Sharbani
Hacham Ben-Sion Meir Hai Uziel
Hacham Yosef Messas
Hacham Yizhak Abuchassera (Baba Haki)
Hacham Avraham Mordechai Nissim Harari-Raful
Hacham Yaakov Kassin
Hacham Rahamim Hai Havita Hakohen
Hacham Massliah Mazuz
Hacham Mansour Ben-Shimon
Hacham Meir Abuchassera (Baba Meir)
Hacham Baruch Ben-Haim
Hacham Yosef Moshe Ades