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Tuesday
Feb132018

A SURPRISE APPOINTMENT TO THE RABBINATE

It is hard not to be impressed by the contagious energy of Rabbi Shimon Vaknin, the Sephardic rav of the ‘Mevo’ot HaHermon’ Regional Council. His rabbinical career unexpectedly began thirty years ago on Moshav Dishon. The ‘finishing blow’ that finally convinced him was the Rebbe’s bracha, which came without his asking for it… In addition, an amazing story of Divine Providence about a gartel. 

Translated by Michoel Leib Dobry

Rabbi Shimon Vaknin, the Sephardic rav of the ‘Mevo’ot HaHermon’ Regional Council, is one of the most well-known rabbinical figures in northern Eretz Yisroel. Rabbi Vaknin has borne the yoke of the rabbinate for more than thirty years. With his unique temperament, he has managed to earn a reputation that has endeared him to many communities from across the Jewish spectrum, including a wide assortment of kibbutzim and other settlements throughout the region. With his distinctive personality, he continues a magnificent rabbinical dynasty begun by his father, Rabbi Machluf Vaknin, who has served for decades as the rav of the ‘Ma’ale Yosef’ Regional Council.

At a special farbrengen that took place this past Gimmel Tammuz at the ‘Heichal Levi Yitzchak’ Synagogue in Kiryat Chabad, Tzfas, Rabbi Vaknin took an active part, filled with much enthusiasm and excitement. During his speech, he told those assembled about a personal moment he had with the Rebbe. “The Lubavitcher Rebbe designated me for service in the rabbinate of ‘Mevo’ot HaHermon,’ and I understood this from the first moment I stepped foot in Moshav Dishon, where I had been invited by a group of local residents. Looking back, it’s hard not to be astounded by the Rebbe’s ruach ha’kodesh.”

WHEN YOU’RE OFFERED A RABBINICAL POSITION…

In a conversation I had with Rabbi Vaknin a few days after the farbrengen, he shared all the details of this story with me, adding that he would be most pleased if it would be publicized in the Rebbe’s honor.

“After our wedding, my wife and I established our residence in the city of Karmiel, where her family lived. During that period, I learned in the local kollel and achieved much success in my studies. Those were marvelous years, when I attained a high level of diligence in my study of Torah and halacha. My father, who was already serving with the rabbinate, tried to convince me that I too should consider pursing a rabbinical position. However, specifically because I had been raised in a rav’s shadow and knew the great responsibility such a position carried, I was in no rush.

“One day in the summer of 5746, a group of five Jews came knocking at our door. I brought them into our living room and asked them what was the purpose of their visit. The guests then proceeded to get straight to the point: ‘We have come from Moshav Dishon. We have no rav and we have heard many good things about you. We would like to ask you to accept the position of rav of our moshav.’ 

“I was then still just a young man, and I hadn’t received my rabbinical ordination yet. As a result, I asked them to forget the whole idea. I explained that I was only starting to learn for the rabbinate, and in any case, I had been designated for a rabbinical position on another moshav. However, they wouldn’t hear of it. They remained steadfast in their offer: ‘We will pay for you to be our rav and teacher, and all your needs will be at our expense.’ 

“When I asked them who had told them about me, one of the group members, Mr. Shalom Azulai, said that he had paid a visit to his mother-in-law living in Yafo, and there he met my mother-in-law. It turns out that our mothers-in-law were good friends back in the days when they were living in Morocco. During his conversation with his mother-in-law, he mentioned that his community had been searching for a long time for a suitable rav. At this point, my mother-in-law ‘informed’ him that I was the very person for the job… She gave him my address, and the next day Mr. Azulai gathered four prominent moshav residents to serve as a delegation to come to our house. 

“Here standing before me was a group of pious and Torah-observant Moroccan Jews. Since it was difficult to turn them down, I decided that I would put them off instead.

“I explained to them that I would only be completing my current rabbinical studies in Tishrei, and so I agreed to come and visit their moshav for Shabbos Parshas Noach. In my heart, I hoped that by that time they would find another rav to fill the post, but that didn’t happen. Weeks and months passed, the Tishrei holiday season came and went, and it would be Shabbos Parshas Noach in just another few days. Back then, not every house had its own telephone. I received word that there was a phone message for me at the post office branch near my home. The representatives of Moshav Dishon had called to say that they were expecting me to come and fulfill my promise. 

“With no alternative, we packed a few things and on Erev Shabbos, we headed for the moshav. The local residents were overjoyed, and Mr. Refael Abucassis arranged for my hospitality and other needs. Everyone heard about my arrival and the synagogue was filled to capacity. On Friday night, I was asked to lead the prayers and say a d’var Torah. After the Torah reading, I gave a drasha before the large congregation, which responded with expressions of great love and appreciation.”

A SUDDEN SURPRISE FROM NEW YORK

“Later that afternoon, as we all sat together for the Seudas Shlishis, I noticed one member of the congregation whose outer garments appeared different from everyone else’s. From the hat on his head to his long frock coat, it was clear that he was a Chabad chassid. When I asked the person sitting next to me who this Jew was, he replied that his name was Eliyahu Gabbai, the son of Mr. Moshe Gabbai.

“Since he appeared to be a Torah scholar, I asked why they don’t choose him to serve as their rav.

“The man did not answer my question. Then, a few minutes later, this chassid got up and asked me if he could speak. I happily agreed as I curiously listened to his words. ‘It’s not my desire to give over a d’var Torah,’ he began, ‘rather, I would like to share an amazing story with you, intended mainly for Rabbi Vaknin.’ I was surprised.

“‘I have just returned from spending more than a year in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s court in New York. I completed my smicha studies in 770 and received my rabbinical ordination. Just before returning to Eretz Yisroel, I asked for the Rebbe’s bracha on a number of matters.

“‘One matter that troubled me deeply was the fact that there was still no rav on the moshav where I lived. When I passed by the Rebbe on Erev Yom Kippur to receive ‘lekach,’ I took advantage of the opportunity to ask for his bracha that a rav should come to the moshav, and the Rebbe gave his blessing. While it was clear to me that the Rebbe’s bracha would be fulfilled, I never imagined how quickly it would happen…’

“On the first Friday after his return to Eretz Yisroel, he was informed that a rav would be coming to the moshav for the purpose of getting acquainted with the community. 

“At this point, he turned to me and stated directly, ‘K’vod HaRav, there’s no reason for you to be hesitant. This job is tailor-made for you.’

“I was deeply moved and saw this as an amazing case of Divine Providence. I had pushed them off for several months, and now, after I had finally come to meet the local residents, this chassid tells me about the Rebbe’s bracha. I realized that I had to obey the Rebbe’s instructions. 

“I accepted the rabbinical position at Moshav Dishon and served there for thirty years until I was eventually appointed as rav of all the settlements in the ‘Mevo’ot HaHermon’ Regional Council. Even when some procedural delays arose around my rabbinical appointment, I wasn’t worried, as I knew that I had the Rebbe’s bracha, and eventually everything worked out.”

A VOLUME OF IGROS KODESH WHEREVER I GO

When Rabbi Vaknin mentioned the Rebbe, his voice filled with emotion. “Our entire family, and all Moroccan Jews in general, are connected to the Rebbe with their faith in tzaddikim and great Torah scholars. My father and teacher, Rabbi Machluf, was privileged to go to the Rebbe on two occasions and receive dollars for tz’daka, one of which I have to this day. I always hear words of esteem and appreciation from him about the Rebbe and Chabad. It’s enough to see the exchange of correspondences between the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the holy ‘Baba Sali,’ and the Abuchatzera family. It’s something absolutely marvelous, beyond all understanding.”

Anyone familiar with Rabbi Vaknin knows that while he doesn’t belong to a Chassidic community, among his many sources of inspiration in his rabbinical work are several volumes of Igros Kodesh. “We work with people of all types and backgrounds. Quite often, questions arise on subjects about which we have little or no understanding. Yet, I see answers to all the questions in the Rebbe’s letters. For many years now, I go around with a volume of Igros Kodesh and learn five to ten letters each day. It’s incredible to see how the Rebbe analyzes various situations and replies with precise answers. 

“On numerous occasions, questions came up on issues that I know nothing about. However, I recalled that I had seen how the Rebbe related to such questions in his holy letters, and I respond using the Rebbe’s words, bringing them in his name. I believe that even when we’re talking about logical answers to questions on conduct and Jewish law, the responses were Heavenly inspired. In this manner, I have been privileged to see some amazing examples of Divine Providence over the years.

“I’ll tell you about one unique case,” Rabbi Vaknin said, as he acquiesced to our request to hear one of these stories.

“I wear a gartel over my tzitzis all day long. Why do I do this? After all, I wasn’t raised or educated among Chassidim. This custom was established in connection with one of the Rebbe’s letters in Igros Kodesh. The story goes as follows:

“I read a letter from the Rebbe written to a Jew who had fallen ill. As a postscript, the Rebbe noted that wearing a ‘gartel’ is a segula for long life. As I read this, I thought to myself that at the first opportunity, I would buy a gartel and start wearing it. If the Rebbe said that this is a segula for long life, how could I possibly pass it up? As it turned out, with all the trials of day-to-day life, I simply forgot about the whole thing.

“Then, just a few days later, I learned of the passing of Mr. Shalom Azulai, a prominent Jew who lived on our moshav. As I mentioned earlier, this was the man in whose merit I had come to Dishon. During the solemn levaya ceremony, I met the Rebbe’s shliach in the ‘Mevo’ot HaHermon’ Regional Council, Rabbi Shneur Zalman Halperin, who does many outreach activities among the local residents. He told me that he had just returned from a visit to 770, and before I even had a chance to understand why he was telling me this, he pulled a gartel out of his pocket. He proceeded to explain that he had bought two gartels by mistake and asked me if I wanted to take one of them. I stood there thunderstruck. We had known one another for years, why would he offer me, of all people, a gartel? And why would he think that a Sephardic Jew such as myself would want such a thing? 

“‘In fact, I do want the gartel, and from now on, I’ll wear it every day,’ I said to his great surprise. I then told him about the answer I had seen in Igros Kodesh.

“This is just one instance among many. We see how the Rebbe operates in the world. We should only be so fortunate to be connected to him and walk in his great and holy light,” said Rabbi Shimon Vaknin as he concluded his fascinating story.

 

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