Real Kavod haTorah
Irene was not my first hurricane. That was Agnes in 1971. One story went around the Jewish community about the Shamash of the synagogue in Wilkes-Barrie, PA, a Holocaust survivor, who, despite being a very old man, rather than evacuate as did everyone else, ran to the synagogue and carried all the Torah scrolls to the safety of the roof, far above the flooding. He refused to get onto the helicopter sent to save him until they had secured all the Sifrei Torah.
It’s one of those stories you store in the back of your mind. It wasn’t the hurricane that made me remember; it was the earthquake. I was in Baltimore visiting my mother, may she live and be well, when everything began to shake. I was with the person who trained me to be incredibly careful with blessings, and to see each beracha as an opportunity, so while everyone else was screaming, I protectively crouched over my mother and recited the blessing over earthquakes. I admit that I was more focused on using the blessing to honor my mother than I was on honoring God. Little did I know that my blessing was considered an active rejection of Kavod haTorah, Honor of Torah.
It was my mother who taught me about Kavod haTorah. It was she who insisted that as we approached Baltimore, hot and exhausted after the very long drive from Toronto, we stop and change into our Shabbat clothes to greet my grandfather zt”l, “You have to dress in your best clothes to greet one of the greatest rabbis of the generation.” It was my mother who taught me to wash my hands before performing a Mitzvah. I washed my hands before beginning the trip to Baltimore to visit my mother, and, when she asked my for a cup of ice water, I washed again. Her nurse asked me why, and was touched by the explanation, “It’s like you are honoring God when you honor your mother!”
The nurse heard my blessing and thought I was praying. I explained that I was reciting a blessing over the earthquake, just as I do over lightening and thunder. She stopped me on my way to the elevator an hour or so later, and said that she asked a rabbi, and he said that there is no such blessing.
“I’m also a rabbi,” I said.
“He’s a real rabbi,” she responded, “with a long beard and a long coat!”
I laughed, and an obviously observant woman standing next to me, chided me for my lack of Kavod haTorah.
It was at that moment that I recalled the story of the elderly man who risked his life to save the Torah scrolls. That was Kavod haTorah! The rabbi of the congregation told me that the man had served as an example of how lacking he was in properly honoring Torah. (I have great honor for that rabbi’s honesty in speaking to a young teenager.)
I learned one form of Kavod haTorah from my mother. I learned another from the shamash who risked his life to save the Torah scrolls. Am I concerned about the perceived lack of respect for a “real rabbi,” who was unfamiliar with a basic law? No, not really. Am I concerned when people are more focused on external, rather than internal, expressions of honor? Absolutely.
I think I’ll stick to honoring the person who taught me the real meaning of honoring Torah.
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