Within the span of fifty days, the people of the State of Israel – indeed, the Jewish people – suffered the loss of three remarkable personalities: Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Rabbanit Bracha Kapach, and Arik Einstein. The personality whose legacy will prove most influential may seem surprising.
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, the former Rishon L’Zion, died at the age of 93 on October 7, 2013. Resisting the pressure to conform to the Ashkenazic traditions privileged by his teachers in Israel when he immigrated as a young man, he engineered a resurgence in the study of Sephardic legal sources. He was instrumental in the founding of the Shas political party responsible for advocating Sephardic pride. He established an enormously influential yeshivah and left behind a legacy of thousands of responsa and learned discourses in dozens of volumes that are esteemed as models of scholarship.
While he was guilty of making some inexplicably outrageous statements, he would best be remembered for his unstinting sympathy for the plight of agunot: women locked into failed marriages. Like many of his renowned forebears, he worked tirelessly to find legal solutions to free these women from their plight. In fact, when told by his doctors that he needed immediate surgery to save his life, he insisted on a delay of several hours so he could return home and finish writing a legal decision that would rescue one such woman. If he died or suffered incapacity as a result of the surgery, it would leave the poor woman without recourse, he is reputed to have told the doctors. They had no choice but to relent. Over eight hundred thousand mourners lined the streets of Jerusalem as his funeral procession passed. It is estimated to be the largest number ever to attend a Jewish funeral.
If Rav Yosef can be described as the spiritual mentor to the observant community, then Arik Einstein was the soul of the secular community. What Rav Yosef contributed in texts, Arik Einstein contributed in song. His was the voice the generation that grew up with the State of Israel. He was more than “the godfather of Israeli rock music.” He articulated the aspirations and frustrations, the challenges and the dreams of those who came of age in the post-Holocaust generation. His simple yet inspirational ballad “You and I Will Change the World” became the anthem of summer campers and youth group participants throughout the Jewish world. He lived modestly and almost reclusively, preferring the simple life at home with a cup of tea than basking in the adulation his millions of fans. He died too young, at the age of 74, on November 26. Ten of thousands turned out to sing him off at a public memorial in Tel Aviv.
One day earlier, and with much less fanfare, the diminutive and lesser known Rabbanit Bracha Kapach died at the age of ninety. She came to Israel from Yemen at an early age, married at age eleven and bore her first child at fourteen. Aside from being the helpmate to her husband, a noted rabbinical scholar and researcher and recipient of the Israel Prize in 1969, she devoted her life to helping the needy. She provided 1400 kosher meals to needy families in Jerusalem in advance of every Shabbat. She raised money for summer camps for indigents, for dowries for needy brides, and for a list of charitable causes too numerous to list. She was awarded the Israel Prize as well, making the Kapach’s the only married couple ever to be so honoured. Bracha Kapach was the epitome of loving-kindness, the paragon of the exemplary life all Jews would do well to emulate.
The fact that these three personalities died within such close proximity to each other encourages comparisons. To be sure, measured by numbers alone it would seem that Rav Yosef enjoyed a far greater influence. Yet for the vast majority of Jews outside the observant sector or the Sephardic community in Israel, Rav Yosef will remain a stranger or a curiosity. The nobility of Rabbanit Kapach is to be admired and her good works praised. No doubt her influence extends well beyond the thousands that she personally helped. They and their offspring will always remain indebted to her in a profound way. Perhaps surprisingly, the one of the three who lived outside the framework of Judaism will leave behind the greatest impact on Judaism.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (d. 1935) once wrote that there are Jews who add to their holy essence by the observance of Torah and performance of Mitzvot. But all Jews are born with a holy essence that emerges in ways other than through the observance of Torah and the performance of mitzvot. Arik Einstein’s holy essence emerged through his music and it was his music that connected secular Israelis and marginally observant North American youth with their people, the land of Israel, and their traditions. Arik Einstein was a force in war against alienation. Rabbanit Kappach symbolized the hands: the doing of the mitzvot that assist fellow human beings. Rav Yosef symbolized the head: the intellectual rigor we need to apply in responding to the challenges of living Jewish lives today. Arik Einstein symbolized the heart: the feelings and yearnings that suffuse us all and stimulate us to think and to act. May their memory collectively be a blessing to us all.