This is not a eulogy. It will not fulfill the demands of such. The praise is far too faint, not for any lack of the deceased’s exalted qualities; but for my inability to even approximate his true praises.
Just a few hours ago, our master and teacher Harav Mordechai ben Salman Eliyahu was buried. May his merit and memory be a blessing and protection for all Israel. Truly, a very large segment of Israel is deeply mourning this loss. This loss of the Rishon L’tzion (the Principal of Zion), such an appropriate title, is a national and generational loss. But it is also the loss of many little people like myself.
The rav was turned to for guidance in great matters of halacha and policy. Phone calls came to him from all over Israel, and all over the world. Rabbis of all sorts turned to him. Sefardim, Ashkenazim, Chabadnikim, and others. Yet he was always available to little, everyday folks as well.
In 1978 I arrived in Yerushalayim to start learning in yeshiva. I went to study under Rav Dov Begon at Machon Meir. At some point I had a question of halacha that needed to be answered, and Rav Begon said to me go to Rav ben Eliyahu (as he was then known). Okay, what did I know? So I got directions and walked about 5 minutes to the other side of the neighborhood. I knocked on the door, the rabbanit let me in, and within a minute or so I was speaking with the rav. That was the first of tens of meetings. Nothing fancy, nothing complicated. I would walk in, the rav would waive to a chair in a friendly but matter of fact manner, and I would ask what was on my mind. Mostly matters of halacha; occasionally something more philosophical or personal.
The truth is, in those early months I had no idea that I was in the presence of a giant. I noticed soon enough that the Torah scholars, young and old, lined up to see him each morning after morning prayers. Nearly every time I went to his home in the morning or afternoon, there were other yeshiva students or rabbis waiting their turn. For each he had a smile and a matter of fact approach to the issue at hand. But even in Kiryat Moshe, a neighborhood with important yeshivot and Torah scholars, it took an uninformed new immigrant a little while to catch on that I was consulting with one of the great rabbis of the generation.
The rav was held in the highest esteem by Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook, by Rav Avrum Shapiro, Rav Shach, and any of the other influential rabbanim of that time in Israel. When he was chosen Chief Sefardi Rabbi/Rishon L’tzion, I had occasion to ask him a question shortly after the announcements. He was receiving congratulatory phone calls from rabbanim all over the world. And he still found a few minutes to help with my relatively small issue, even while fielding the calls. His wife had whispered to me on the way in how he had received a call even from Lubavitch in America!
He had a special respect for the OU, and spoke at the Israel Center when we were on Strauss Street. Even though he had recently been chosen Rishon L’tzion, he kept all his appointments and teaching commitments. He gave a pre-Passover talk at the Israel Center that was simply outstanding. Erudite, yet organized for the common audience; and he stayed and answered questions afterwards.
The rav was turned to on matters great and small by all segments of the Jewish people. He decided matters of halachah with equal ability for Ashkenazim and Sefardim, and took interest in immigrants like the Ethiopian Jews. Only once can I recall him advising me that my question needed an Ashkenazi-informed rav, and he sent me to the other side of the neighborhood to speak with Rav Shaul Yisraeli. For an extended time I went to the rav with questions while I was learning the laws of Sefer Torah, Tefillin, and Mezuzah. He was familiar with every aspect, and interested. At one point, he told me that I should also go speak with his brother, Harav Naim, who was especially expert in these matters. Rav Naim ben Eliyahu was a deep, humble man who handled my every question with kindness and thorough competence.
The rav told me that as he learned each section of Shulhan Aruch as a young man, he also learned the skills needed to carry out what he was learning. Writing, slaughtering, whatever it was. He told me I should do the same. Sadly, I didn’t follow his advice on that.
When I was preparing to be married, I started learning the laws of Nidah, as many yeshivah student grooms-to-be do. Rav Eliyahu had been giving classes to local women on the topic, which were summarized and printed in popular yet authoritative pamphlets by his son. (Later, this became the book Darkei Taharah.) When I asked the rav what we would do if there were specific questions in our new home about stains, etc. he said, bring me every question you have, and I will show you what to do with it. And so, much like King David in his time, he did for me and many others in the neighborhood.
I recall one time going to the rav with a question. He answered in his usual succinct manner. I asked for clarification. He replied. I raised an objection. He dealt with it. I questioned his answer further. He answered. Finally, he said to me, look, you don’t have to do what I say. You asked me a matter of halachah. I told you what I think is the correct answer. When you get to the heavenly court, they will ask you to defend your actions; but they won’t ask you why you didn’t listen to me. You ask. I answer. But the responsibility is yours. For me, this was a great lesson in retaining my sense of answerability and responsibility. The rav could instruct me; but I couldn’t pass the buck. We each kept our own weight of responsibility in the rav-talmid interaction.
Israel mourns tonight. The Eliyahu household mourns; may Hashem comfort them among all the mourners of Zion. But also, in many anonymous homes like mine, countless unknown individuals are mourning the loss of a great, giant of Torah who yet was the rav of the whoever came to him, myself included. The ship has lost its captain. I have lost my rav.