In one of the most solemn prayers of Yom Kippur, the Unetanneh Tokef is chanted, during which the hazzan recounts that God will inscribe the fates of his people, “who will live and who will die … who by water and who by fire.”
This year, Yom Kippur was particularly fateful for Rabbi Yitzhak Hakak, the spiritual leader of Tehilat Yerushalayim Congregation, which meets in the Bernard Betel Centre in Toronto. While away at Yom Kippur services, the home he and his family was renting was badly damaged by a fire.
Rabbi Hakak, his wife and seven children were out of the house when their rented home on Crestwood Road in Thornhill, Ont., caught fire. Authorities believe that an electrical problem may have triggered the blaze.
Though the family was unharmed, all their belongings were destroyed, including Rabbi Hakak’s substantial library of holy books.
Yet Rabbi Hakak is grateful it was only inanimate objects that were destroyed. His children headed home before he did, as he was delayed ministering to a person who had suffered a heart attack.
Speaking through a translator, Rabbi Hakak said that while he was still near the shul, he saw fire trucks roaring past, heading in the direction of his home. “I saw 10 firetrucks driving like crazy next to us, but we never imagined they were going to our house,” he said.
When he got to his street and saw the trucks at his home, “at the beginning, the rabbi said, ‘it can’t be real.’ He never imagined they were going to (his) house,” said the translator.
At first, he was worried his children might have been in the house, as they left for home before he did. But it turned out that his eldest son, 19, arrived first and found the house on fire. He then asked a neighbour to call 911.
“I got there and understood that God forgave us and did kapparot (atonement) on the house that burned, and not on people,” Rabbi Hakak said.
“When he saw the fire, he got the meaning of the prayer of Unetanneh Tokef,” the translator added.
In the aftermath of the blaze, Rabbi Hakak and his family were offered a place to stay in Innisfil, Ont., by a member of the congregation. That’s where they reside now, as they search for a new home closer to the shul.
Rabbi Hakak, a native of Israel, moved to Toronto from Las Vegas a year and a half ago to better educate his children in local Jewish schools and to serve as spiritual leader of the mostly Sephardic congregation.
In addition to leading the congregation, Rabbi Hakak is teaching a class on halakhah, is a dayan and posek (gives judgments on matters of Jewish law) and is a member of two batei din (Jewish courts), one in New York and the other in Paris, the translator said.
In the wake of the fire, a GoFundMe page was launched, titled “Yom Kippur House Fire Relief Fund,” and in a little more than a week, it raised over $50,000 to help the rabbi and his family.
Rabbi Hakak thanked the community for its support. As for the family being away at shul when the fire broke out, Rabbi Hakak said, “I don’t feel lucky. I feel chesed (loving kindness) from ha-Shem (God). It could have been later and everybody was in the house.”