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A Jerusalem of Gold

Esther Teichtal

Shortly after their engagement, Rav Mordechai Eliyahu ztz’’l (the former Sephardic chief rabbi ofIsrael) surprised his wife with a small wrapped box. It contained a plain piece of paper bearing Rabi Akiva’s famous promise: “One day, I’ll buy you a Jerusalemof gold.” Surviving on the barest of necessities, the couple built a golden palaceof Torahfor their family and the klal — turning their home into an address for Jews across the Israeli spectrum.

Monday, May 13, 2013

goldDebating briefly whether to take the elevator or climb the stairs, I choose the stairs. I climb them slowly, noting how time has frozen since I was last here three decades ago. It’s the same tight staircase hemming me inward as I walk up. Approaching the front door, I hear Rabbanit Tzivya Eliyahu’s voice instructing someone on a technical matter in that brisk, no-nonsense manner of hers.

She knows I am coming, yet when she opens the door, she greets me as effusively as if my visit were a total surprise. Her honey-toned eyes crinkle at the edges and her playful smile beckons me toward the kitchen. Her energy is so infectious, I wonder how I stayed away so long.

There was a time I was a frequent visitor. In my teen years, I was close to the Rabbanit’s only daughter — her youngest child — and many a morning the Rabbanit would bustle round us, making sure we left for school on time after defying midnight, studying for exams. Those days I simply basked in her warmth, feeling like one of the family. It took me years to realize what a privilege I’d been granted to view greatness up close.

A soft silence fills the room as the Rabbanit and I stand and gaze at one another. The moment, rich with the unspoken, is swept away as she waves her hand toward a lifelike portrait of her husband — the one-time Rishon L’Tzion (Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel), Rav Mordechai Eliyahu ztz”l — which now graces the wall above his chair. “Does this remind you of the Rav?” she asks me.

Truthfully, I was reminded of the Rav, who passed away three years ago, as soon as I entered the building through the back parking lot. I have never known anyone — then or now — to walk like the Rav. Emerging from the apartment building to be driven to the rabbinical bureau or to any one of the myriad public functions constantly begging his attendance, he strode purposefully toward his curtained car. Ramrod straight, yet eyes cast downward, he bore the traditional navy turban and richly embroidered cloak of the Rishon L’Tzion with regal composure.

“He was so great. And yet he hid his greatness even from me,” the Rabbanit says, her voice now a soft timbre. “He memorized every line on every page of every sefer kodesh he studied. When asked a question, he would walk directly to the source [among hundreds of books], and when he took the book in his hands, it would open instantly to the precise place. He would point at the relevant line and deliver an answer, never needing to even flip a page. Realizing how remarkable this was, I began making comments, so the Rav started masking the reality by flipping superficially back and forward to make it seem as if he needed to exert some effort.” The Rabbanit’s voice lowers to a reverent whisper: “Malach Hashem!”

“One day I couldn’t help myself,” the Rabbanit continues. “I asked him, ‘How do you know so much? And how do you find every quote so effortlessly?’ The Rav answered, ‘What do you want from me? You run this entire household. You do everything! All I do is sit and learn.’” The Rabbanit pauses. “Such humility!” Hearing the admiration in her voice, the maxim “it takes one to know one” comes to mind.

 

 

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