Gadol Kavod Habriyos

I am going to break two of my personal writing rules because I think this subject is so important, especially with the approach of the Three Weeks. First of all, I (almost) never use one of my drashos as an article. The goals, styles and vocabulary are totally different, sometimes even contradictory. Secondly, my purpose in these essays is hopefully to uplift, inform and help people to think about something they might have missed. I do not give mussar here. There are many others far better suited and equipped to do that. I view these weekly pieces as opportunities to explore the Torah hashkafah on issues of the day through the prism of our gedolim.  

 

However, having had the pleasure to attend many simchos recently, in many types of circles and groups, I was struck by a behavior pattern that was almost universal, yet in my view has no justification.

 

A few words of introduction, if I may. In many areas, there are justifiably differing customs. From Sefardim to Ashkenazim, Litvaks to Chassidim, Modern Orthodox to yeshivish, various groups have developed modes of dress, prayer, language and other identifying factors. However, almost all are in agreement that kavod habriyos, roughly translated as mentchlichkeit and common courtesy, is important to them. There may nuances in approach and implementation, but all accept the concept.

 

Furthermore, we can probably all agree that commemorating any simchah today is expensive, time-consuming and important to each family, becoming an important part of each family’s history, legacy and heritage. In addition, we can agree that although we sometimes find other people’s events somewhat tiresome and intrusive upon what we would rather be doing, they are a necessary part of all our lives.

 

So why, I constantly wonder, do family and friends – ostensibly the only ones attending someone’s life-cycle event – act so disrespectfully and boorishly at the most important moments for parents, grandparents and those who truly care? I am not alluding to kavod HaTorah – listening to rabbonim, roshei yeshiva, etc. On that subject, I cannot claim objectivity, nor is that my topic today. I am writing of the moment when, after thirteen long years, the bar mitzvah finally recites his pshetel or devar Torah. I am, painfully, remembering countless proud moments of a father, grandfather or other relative who has waited years to share something that has been deep inside his soul for decades. He may have never held a microphone before or spoken to more than five people at a time. But this is his moment and, be it a bar mitzvah, wedding, sheva brachos or some other simchah, we are there for a reason. We have been invited because someone thinks we care. We have not come to ruin his moment or talk through it. We are there because someone thought we would be happy for them. We are there because there is a purpose to our being in the audience. It is to lend chashivus and dignity to a once-in-a-lifetime event. And instead, some people kill the moment. The speaker or someone else must beg for quiet – “Could you please give me (or my child) a few moments of your precious time? It won’t take long” – and the magic of the moment has already been ruined. Forever.

 

When I spoke about this publicly, I was almost universally thanked. Many people told me that they hadn’t realized how disrespectful and hurtful a few moments of talking could be. Two people, however, attempted to defend this behavior. One suggested that since the speeches were recorded on video, the current audience didn’t really matter. The second blamed the phenomenon on the change in dining venue. People used to sit at a table when attending a simchah, so there was a formality and etiquette to the meal. Today, however, for reasons of finance and convenience, many meals are catered buffet-style, with people walking around, speaking to each other, plate in hand. My critic claimed that this setup “just doesn’t lend itself to standing and listening to speeches.”

 

My response to the first terutz was that videos only exacerbate a bad situation by immortalizing it. The photographer dutifully “pans the crowd,” recording for posterity that no one was listening. Furthermore, the noise and background chatter will be heard even if the camera is pointed continually on the speaker. As for the second point, he is probably right. It is far easier to listen from a chair at a table, where one can take a drink or bite as one listens. But it is still no excuse for ruining someone’s simchah. One might even suggest that it is literally geneivah, stealing someone’s most precious never-to-be relived moments.

 

I don’t even think that these thoughts need to be footnoted or sourced. They are self-evident and easy to implement. This may be one of the easiest chassodim we ever do, despite the fact that, initially, people will not understand why we suddenly want to listen to the person pouring his heart out up there. Nevertheless, let us look at some of what Chazal have to say about this most basic halachah of kavod habriyos, giving respect to all when their moment comes.          

 

First of all, there are few halachos that impact so many areas of our lives as kavod habriyos. The Gemara (Brachos 19b) teaches that giving basic honor to a fellow human being can and does override Torah prohibitions. Of the thousands of references in poskim to kavod habriyos, one must note that it impacts the laws of Shabbos, aveilus, tzitzis, shatnez and hundreds more. If we need motivation, the Arvei Nachal (Balak, Drush 5) writes that when the Mishnah (Avos 4:1) states, “Who is given true honor? One who honors others,” the reward is that he is granted honor directly from the Master of the Universe.” Imagine getting an honor at a dinner and the Presenter is Hashem Himself!

 

The criterion for how to act here is actually the most basic one in the Torah. The mitzvah to love our neighbor as ourselves requires that we think “how would we like it if someone did this to us” (see Hamek Dovor, Vayikra 19:18). It is the answer to many questions, such as truth telling in shidduchim and talking during someone’s bar mitzvah speech.

 

On an even more basic level, we should realize that this is one of those moments for which we were created. Rav Itzele of Volozhin zt”l quotes from his father, Rav Chaim, the great talmid muvhak of the Gaon of Vilna: “Man was not created for himself, but for others” (introduction to Nefesh Hachaim). This should impel us to make the simple calculation of ve’ahavta lerei’acha kamocha every time a situation arises when we interact with others: “How would I feel if…?”

 

Shlomo Hamelech teaches us, “On a good day, be happy, but when things are not going so well, reflect” (Koheles 7:14). One of the lessons in this posuk (see Chochmas Koheles) is that we obviously enjoy our own simchos. But on a day of joy, meaning your friend’s simchah, act toward him as you would at your own. Rav Avrohom Grodzensky zt”l Hy”d, the mashgiach of Slabodka, was once unable to attend a student’s wedding, which took place in another city. At the moment that they were dancing at the chasunah, Rav Grodzensky, with great difficulty, arose and danced a bit in place. When his family asked what he was doing, he responded, “One should participate in a friend’s simchah in whatever way he can” (introduction to Toras Avrohom).

 

A well-known story with Rav Chaim Shmulevitz illustrates this well. The Mirrer rosh yeshiva was universally known for his hasmadah. He never wasted a moment. One day, when he was walking home from yeshiva with his talmidim, he lingered outside an old-fashioned shoe store, where the shoemaker had put out little baby first-time shoes to dry. Rav Chaim stared for a few precious moments, wiped a tear from his eye and moved on.

 

“Rebbe,” his closest disciple inquired for all, “why did you stare at the little shichelech?”

 

In a lesson for a lifetime, Rav Chaim responded with a smile. “I was imagining the joy the fathers of those children will feel when they place those little shoes on their children for the first time. As for the mothers, I am sure that I have no ability to even approximate their happiness.”

 

 

Rav Chaim’s genius was that he was able to share vicariously in someone’s joy, even before the event had happened.                        

 

Of course, the reason to bring this up now is the advent of the Three Weeks. Many of our gedolim have taught us to work on our bein adam lachaveiro during this time, when the second Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed because of baseless hatred. Sometimes it’s not really hatred, just a lack of thought or concern. Rav Yosef Leib Bloch zt”l, the Telzer Rov zt”l, puts it succinctly: “Man is a partner in the work of his friend” (Shiurei Daas, page 154). If we would feel that our friend’s simchah is our own, our joy would be greater, our dancing would be more heartfelt, and perhaps our ears would be attuned to their words. Three weeks without singing and dancing gives us a chance to get it right when the opportunity returns. May we have only simchos and act at all as if they were our very own.