Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had already completed his Halacha lesson, welcomed and blessed the party's political leadership and the audience and reminded everyone that Shas' aim was to expand the Torah and glorify it.
The opening of the Shas campaign on Saturday night at the Jerusalem International Convention Center seemed ready to reach its conclusion when Tzvi Hakak, the Shas spiritual leader's personal secretary, handed the 92-year-old rabbi a slip of paper that had been prepared in advance and whispered something in his ear.
Yosef then approached the microphone: “You know, it's not only a matter of strengthening the Torah. It is written, 'He will stand to the right of the poor.' When there are poor people, God stands by them, when they don't have bread to eat, he helps them. How much our Shas movement does for the poor, how much for the weak, to strengthen them... to give them the meat they need. May the holy one bless them.”
It turns out that Rabbi Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, the glory and pride of his generation, also gets a memo listing talking points. Kahlon or no Kahlon, Shas is intent on being the hero of the working class. As 'social welfare' as possible. How much does Shas do for the poor? A lot, it seems.
But the verbal messages were background noise at the Jerusalem event launching the Shas campaign. The real story was in the seating arrangements. It turns out that the new Shas, led by the troika of Eli Yishai-Aryeh Deri-Ariel Atias, is totally subservient to the venerated rabbi. If proof were necessary, it could be found on the stage, where Yosef was surrounded by rabbis. No politicians.
The troika, which hadn't even been invited onstage, was even denied access to a microphone. Their relegation to three reserved seats in the front row of the audience, surrounded by Shas MKs, communicated the message loud and strong.
There is no other leader but Rabbi Ovadia. There was only one sign on the stage, and it read, “We are united in returning the crown [of the Torah] to its ancient glory.”
The multitude, most of them yeshiva students who were no more than schoolchildren when Aryeh Deri was convicted of criminal charges, showed up at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem for the happening that put the final mark of approval on the return of the former Shas political leader after 13 years, part of which he spent behind bars. Shas hopes to increase from its current 11 seats in the Knesset to 14, 15 or even 16. It has become a custom, after a Shas event of this kind, to ask if there was electricity in the air. This time there was – but it was only medium voltage.
The biggest power surge came, as might be expected, when Yosef himself made a grand entrance. The cheering went on for many minutes, with the crowd standing on its feet, clapping their hands enthusiastically. They were spurred on by the beat of music from a singer and keyboard player stationed in one corner of the stage. No one seemed to mind that the songs were all strictly-Ashkenazi style Hasidic pop or the singer's distinctly Ashkenazi accent. One could be forgiven for wondering if Shas is still a Sephardi party.
A few minutes before Yosef's arrival, the three political leaders – Yishai, Deri and Atias – entered the hall, greeted with applause. All wore the tall, wide-brimmed hats of Torah scholars. Yishai led the trio in paying respects to the rabbis onstage, but it was Deri who had been assigned the middle of their three front-row seats.
Referring to the party's MKs, Yosef said that Shas' parliamentary and ministerial representatives “haven't yet finished the job. In the next Knesset they will continue, God willing, doing their best to make the Torah grow and to glorify it, to reinforce Jewish tradition and prevent assimilation. There are those who come to be assimilated, God forbid, Jews and gentiles together, a Jewess… 'and God divided the light from the darkness.' Blessed be these who come closer to the Torah, as well as our friends who aren't so good at keeping the tradition. Every Jew has a holy spark in his Jewish heart.”
Rabbi Yosef was there, ostensibly to deliver his weekly post-Shabbat lesson, usually given at a synagogue near his residence in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood. Twice during his discourse he casually used the words “roar of the lion” (aryeh in Hebrew), an apparently subtle reference to the noisy protests that broke out when Aryeh Deri began his three-year jail sentence, more than a decade ago. Both mentions were greeted with cheering and loud applause.
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