Address on the Inauguration of Rabbi Shalom Bahbout as Chief Rabbi of Venice

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04 Dec 2014
Rabbi Genack addresses the audience at the Sinagoga Ponentina o Spagnola in Venice

It is with a great sense of honor and also personal pleasure that I celebrate with you the inauguration of Rabbi Shalom Bahbout as Chief Rabbi of Venice. I have known Rabbi Bahbout for many years, and his ability and dedication, together with his sweet disposition and character, are the qualities that will make him a great leader of the Venice Jewish community.

In this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Va’yetze, we read of Ya’akov Avinu’s flight from his murderous brother Esav. The Torah tells us, “Vayifga bamakom vayalen sham” – Ya’akov came to the place and he rested there. The word “makom” literally means “place.” But the Midrash points out that the word “makom” is also one of the names of Hashem, because the Almighty is the “place” that encompasses the entire world.  The Torah is telling us that Ya’akov, in fleeing from his brother on that dark night, encountered  Hamakom – he encountered Hashem.  What was the purpose of this rendezvous? The Gemara in Berachos says that, “Ein pegiah ela lashon tefilla” – the word “vayifga” has the connotation of prayer. When the Torah tells us “vayifga bamakom” – that Ya’akov encountered Hashem —  it is telling us that Ya’akov prayed to Hashem, and the Gemara tells us that on that night, Ya’akov established the Arvit prayer.

As we all know, we refer to Hashem with different names in Hebrew, and each name has its own meaning, its own connotation. We use the name “Hamakom” to refer to Hashem at times of hester panim, when God’s face is hidden, when the world seems bleak and cruel. In the Ashkenaz minhag, we comfort mourners who are sitting Shiva with the phrase “Hamakom yenachem etchem be’toch she’ar aveilei tziyon ve’Yerushalayim” – we use Hamakom to refer to God at times of sadness and grief. That night, when Ya’akov Avinu was fleeing from his brother Esav, he was at his most vulnerable.  Running away, afraid, alone, in darkness – at that fearful time, Ya’akov turns to God in prayer, and he composes the prayer of Arvit, the prayer that is said at night, the time of darkness, when man is afraid, forlorn and without hope.

Both the prophet Yeshayahu and the prophet Yechezkel describe the “ma’ase merkava” – the hosts of angels in God’s celestial abode, and the Gemara in Chagiga discusses the difference between Yehsayahu’s description, which is very brief,  and Yechezkel’s description, which is much more extensive. The Gemara says that someone who lives in a large city describes the king differently that one who lives in a small village, implying that one who lives in the large city and sees the king all the time describes the king with only a few words, while one who lives in a small town and sees the king only on rare occasions, will describe the king in much greater detail.  The Rav, Rabbi Soloveitchik, explains that the Gemara is not implying that Yeshayahu is a greater prophet than Yechezkel; the Gemara is not implying that Yeshayahu is more familiar with Hashem, and therefore describes the Ma’ase Merkava only briefly, while Yechezkel, who is less familiar with Hashem, has a much more extensive description of Ma’ase Merkava. The Rav explains that Yeshayahu and Yechezkel where on equal levels. The Rav explains that the true intent of the Gemara is that the descriptions of Ma’ase Merkava by Yeshayahu and Yechezkel differ because these two propets lived in two completely different epochs. Yeshayahu lived and prophesied while the Temple was still in existence and God’s presence was palpable. Yechezkel delivered his prophecies after the destruction of the Temple when the Jews were in exile. Yechezkel’s prophecy was during a time of hester panim – of hopelessness and despair for the Jewish people.

Our kedusha is composed of two verses, one from Yeshayahu and one from Yechezkel, which reflect both views. The verse from Yeshayhau – kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, Hashem Tzevakos, melo chol ha’aretz kevodo reflects the time when the glory of God was present throughout the land – melo chol ha’aretz kevodo – the time when the Beit Hamikdash was still standing, and God’s presence was near and comforting. But Yechezkel, who lived in the time of churban, destruction and exile, his prophecy is  – boruch kevod Hashem mimekomo – the glory of God is not spread throughout the land, it is in its own distant place. Yechezkel uses the word “makom” because he is living in the era of hester panim, when God’s glory is hidden.

In our own time, we too feel we are living in a period of darkness. We see a world turning against Israel and see the rise of anti-Semitism, especially this past week when we witnessed the murders of the five kedoshim in Har Nof, four Torah scholars and the Druze policeman who was killed while protecting them. Among the fallen heroes also included close friend of mine, Rosh Teshiva of Yeshivas Toras Moshe Rav Mosheh Twersky Hy”d, a descendent of a royal rabbinic lineage, including his grandfather Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l.

We look for God’s presence in the world, and it is not easy for us to find it. We need great leadership to guide us through these difficult times, to seek out “Hamakom” and to bring God’s presence closer to us all. Mino Bahbout is such a leader, and the Jewish community of Venice is indeed fortunate to have him at its helm. He is a man of great ability and intelligence. He is an accomplished talmid chacham and scholar, not just in Jewish learning, but in secular knowledge as well, with a graduate degree in physics. Over the years that I have worked with him, he has raised the standards of kashrut in Venice and all Italy. He has the rare ability to connect with people and to get people to work together. His name is Shalom, and that is his hallmark, as he is so successful at making shalom between people. Rabbi Bahbout also has a beautiful voice, and his sweet soul is reflected in his beautiful voice. He has visited my home many times, and we have always been uplifted by his beautiful singing at the Shabbat table.

The Italian Jewish community is one of the oldest centers of Jewish population, and the city of Venice is special. It has a rich history – Venice was the home of great scholars and was a pioneer in the formative era of Hebrew printing. The earliest editions of the Talmud and of the Rambam were printed in Venice. But the Jews of Venice have experienced darkness as well as glory. The first use of the word “ghetto” was in connection with the Venice Jewish community. Venice suffered terribly during the Holocaust – vayifga bamakom – the Jews of Venice also experienced hester panim and despair.  Today is Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month, and today’s celebration represents a new beginning for the Jewish community of Venice, a new beginning that will lead to ever greater success for the community.

During the many times that Rabbi Bahbout has been at my home for Shabbat, we have sung together Shalom Aleichem on Friday night. People have often asked the question about Shalom Aleichem, that the song is really quite strange. We invite the angels in and say Shalom Aleichem and Boachem le’Shalom, and then we immediately show the angels out and say Tzeytchem le’shalom. The answer is that there are really two different groups of angels on Friday night – the angels that have been with us and protected us all week, and then a new group of angels that comes to us on Friday night to spend Shabbat with us. In the warm glow of Friday night at home, we greet the Shabbat angels and say to them Shalom Aleichem. To the angels who have accompanied us all week through our trials and tribulations, who have been there with us in the ups and downs of life, we say Tzeytchem Le’Shalom as  we thank them for their protective guidance and release them from their responsibilities.

Similarly, Ya’akov, in Parashat Vayetzei, dreamt of the angels “olim ve’yordim” going up the ladder and coming down the ladder. The question is asked, shouldn’t the order be reversed? Why does it say that the angels went up the ladder and then came down the ladder? Don’t the angels live in heaven, and first come down and then go up? The answer is that the Torah is referring to two groups of angels, the angels that protected Ya’akov as long as he was in the Land of Israel, and a new group of angels who would protect him as he left Israel and entered the Galut. Now that Ya’akov was leaving the Land of Israel, the angels that had accompanied  him and protected him in the Land of Israel were going up the ladder, and the new group of angels were coming down the ladder, those who would protect him in his travails in Galut.

Rabbi Mino Bahbout will hopefully be one of those angels for the Jewish community of Venice – helping and supporting the Jews of Venice during good times and difficult times, when Hashem’s presence is near and also when it seems distant. And we also hope and pray, that Hashem’s angels will always be there to protect Rabbi Bahbout as he assumes this noble position and leads the Jewish community of Venice to greater glory and service to Hashem.    

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.