Friday, September 26, 2008

Eulogy for Hazzan Rebibo Z"L

This week, the highly esteemed and beloved Hazzan Emeritus of Magen David Sephardic Congregation, Mr. David Rebibo, passed away at the age of 95. His funeral was held on Wednesday at noon. I cannot claim that the eulogy I delivered was a sufficient tribute to his illustrious memory. However, I present it here to offer at least a glimpse of the character of this great man to the readership.

As you know, I never write out my speeches, not even my High Holiday sermons. But I feel genuinely inadequate and humbled by the prospect of delivering a eulogy for Hazzan David Rebibo , someone whom I regarded as a grandfather, a teacher and a personal mentor. It seems at best futile and at worst an injustice on my part to attempt to capture the greatness of such a remarkable man in a single address. Not to mention that the loss of Hazzan Rebibo is a powerful blow to me personally and a tragedy that impacts our entire community, leaving us at a loss for words. Nevertheless, we have an obligation to recognize and discuss the sublime qualities of Hazzan Rebibo so as to pay tribute to him and to remind ourselves of the massive responsibility that his legacy places on our shoulders.

The Bible describes the illustrious King David as the “sweet singer of Israel ”. Our David, Hazzan David Rebibo , certainly lived up to the example of his namesake in this regard. His leadership of the prayers in our congregation was and always will be legendary. Hazzan Rebibo was the consummately skillful Hazzan – he had the uncanny ability to look at any passage in the siddur, mahazor or book of Kinnot at any time of the year and to begin chanting it instantly, without even a moment's hesitation. He established the liturgical traditions of Magen David Sephardic Congregation including introducing the melodies we utilize for Shabbat, Festivals, Tisha B’av Kinnot and the High Holidays. He taught us how to pray with solemnity and with soulfulness. He was capable of maintaining and insisting upon proper decorum during services, while simultaneously bringing heartfelt emotion and palpable intensity to our experience of tefillah.

Many Hazzanim are “divas” who behave in an elitist manner and think quite highly of themselves. Not so Hazzan Rebibo. His sterling character was untarnished by the slightest trace of egotistical interest. His first priority was to ensure that peace, tranquility and unity reigned in our Bet Kenesset. With his musical gifts he uplifted and unified us in prayer, and with his insight into human beings he helped foster harmony and cooperation in our community. He was keenly socially aware till his final day on Earth and consistently avoided confrontation, preferring instead to engage in his own quiet brand of synagogue diplomacy.

I will never forget last Sunday when I spent approximately an hour and a half sitting with Hazzan Rebibo and his family in the Rebibo’s living room. Inevitably, the hot issue of the current presidential election came up in our conversation. When asked whom he planned to vote for, Hazzan Rebibo tactfully responded “both of them”. He realized that mixed company was present and he couldn’t bear to make anyone who might disagree with his political views feel uncomfortable, so he took the high road, as usual.

Hazzan Rebibo was a living example of the classic words of Tehillim, “Hashem, who can dwell in your tent, who can reside on Your holy mountain? One who walks perfectly and acts justly and speaks truth in his heart. Who has no slander on his tongue, nor has he done harm to a fellow, nor casts disgrace on a neighbor. In whose eyes a contemptible person is repulsive, but who honors those who fear the Lord…One who does these things shall never falter.”

We tend to idealize our loved ones who have passed on, and there are many people to whom these words have been applied after their deaths, as a sort of exaggeration or embellishment of their piety. I can tell you honestly that even while he still dwelt among us, and even while he was still enjoying relatively good health and this day seemed like it was far off in the distant future, whenever I read this passage of Tehillim the image of Hazzan Rebibo appeared before me. I am confident that it will continue to do so for the rest of my life. There is no better concrete example of the lessons contained in that paragraph than the one offered to us by Hazzan Rebibo.

Never did he speak a negative word about another human being, even if it might seem justified. Never did he engage in idle talk around the table – it was beneath his dignity and a violation of his principles. He gave everyone the benefit of the doubt and treated everyone with the same humanity and respect that he expected from them. Hazzan Rebibo’s eyes sparkled with warmth, insight and wit, and he had an outstanding sense of humor, but he never enjoyed a laugh at someone else’s expense. And when I say never I mean never – I am not exaggerating. Being in his presence and observing such righteous conduct on a daily basis was a truly humbling and inspiring experience for all of us.

Hazzan Rebibo was one of those individuals of tremendous stature who we begin to think have outsmarted the Malach Hamavet, the Angel of Death. He survived so many threats to his health and underwent so many medical interventions, yet he would invariably bounce back, resume daily synagogue attendance, observe the major and minor fasts and even lead the prayers on occasion. It seemed as if he had found the secret to eternity in this world and that he would be here with us forever.

Indeed, we all hoped and prayed that this would be the case. After all, how can there be Selihot without Hazzan R ebibo, Adon Haselihot – the Master of Selihot himself who taught us how to chant them? How can there be Sukkot or Pesah without Hazzan Rebibo there to remind us when and with what solemn melody to recite the prayers for rain and dew? How will we survive another Tisha B’av kinnot service without Hazzan Rebibo to whisper the tune for each section in our ears so that we know how to start it properly? How will we enter into Yom Kippur this year without Hazzan R ebibo’s unforgettable and haunting rendition of the Kal Nidre prayer?

The circumstances in which we find ourselves are reflected beautifully in a moving passage in the Talmud in Masechet Berachot. When the great Sage Rav passed away his students escorted him to burial. Upon their return from the funeral, they sat down to have a meal together by the River Danak. A t the conclusion of their repast they prepared to recite the Birkat Hamazon, or Grace after Meals. A question emerged regarding its proper recitation and they were unable to resolve it satisfactorily. One of the most illustrious students, Rav Adda bar Ahava, stood up and tore his garment a second time (after already having torn it once at the funeral). “Our teacher has died,” he exclaimed, “and we have not even learned how to recite the Grace after Meals properly!”

We too have lost a spiritual giant, a paragon of righteousness, a beloved teacher – but we have not yet internalized the lessons he struggled to teach us. We do not yet know what it means to lead the prayers with a deep and abiding sense of standing in the presence of the Almighty. We are not yet sure how to strike that perfect balance between humility and elegance, between dignity and good humor that he exhibited so effortlessly. Our teacher is gone but we had not yet completed the course. What we would give for another few moments with him, to review some of the prayers and their melodies, or to request his sagacious advice or guidance.

Each day in Selihot we read, “ Anshe Emunah Avadu Baim B’choach Maasehem”, men of faith, of principle, men who strengthened and protected us with their meritorious deeds have disappeared. We are a generation of lost souls that needs people like Hazzan Rebibo more than ever before, and now he too has left us to find eternal rest in a better place. The more time passes, the less opportunities we have to observe and to interact with human beings of the caliber of Hazzan Rebibo. What a blessing, how fortunate we were to know him, and alas, what a tragedy, what a heart-wrenching misfortune it is to be compelled to bid him farewell for the last time.

Our Rabbis teach us that the death of pious individuals is a source of atonement for the Jewish people. When we find ourselves bereft of those who inspired us, we are moved to find sources of inspiration from within. When we realize that the pillars of the community are no longer present, we are beckoned to assume responsibility for the continuity of our heritage and traditions. When the leaders upon whom we relied to study, practice and teach Torah and Sephardic customs are called to the Heavenly Academy , we feel a sense of obligation to take up the mantle of Torah study and observance, to continue the legacy of our ancestors and teachers and to ensure that the flame of Jewish life is never extinguished. This reawakening of connection to Judaism and to community is a source of atonement for us all if we use it to draw ourselves closer to our synagogue and to our God.

As we approach the High Holidays and the New Year, we pray that the merit of Hazzan Rebibo should inspire us all to increase our involvement in what he cherished more than anything else in this world – the Torah, the mitsvot, and Magen David Sephardic Congregation. Striving to live up to his awesome example as best we can is the ultimate tribute we can render to him.

May the soul of Hazzan David ben HaRav Yosef veHanna Rebibo find its eternal rest in the presence of the Almighty, and may his memory be a source of blessing for us always. Amen.


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