We are a family of kohanim. Chazal tell us that kohanim zerizim heim (Shabbos 20a, 114b), which means, among other things, that they act swiftly and with alacrity to perform mitzvos.
I must share such a story of zerizus that happened last week with what I believe is both a lesson and a metaphor for us all.
My son noticed a posting, accompanied by a small picture of a painting. The posting proclaimed that “a painting is immediately available or it will be thrown into a dumpster.” Someone had asked who the person in the painting was and the lady responded that she had no idea. My son sprang into action, but he was apparently too late. The lady sent back that she was keeping the frame, but the painting was already in the dumpster. My son responded that he would be happy to remove it from the dumpster, to which she rejoined “lol,” which I now understand to mean “laugh out loud” or “you’ve got to be kidding.” More persevering than his father, my son asked where the dumpster was. Realizing that her correspondent was someone indefatigable, she revealed the location and added that there are also “seforim” in the garage that were also heading for the dumpster. My son responded, “I’ll be right over.”
The net result of this dialogue and a midnight diving expedition into a grimy dumpster was the beautiful picture you see on this page of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and several boxes of seforim. The exchange of posts and its result made me think of my youth, when I had the time and some money to “rescue seforim.” Those were the days of used bookstores that boasted such categories as “science, cooking, fiction and…Judaica.” Often, the Judaica sections were merely old academic works or children’s Bible stories. But often enough, I discovered treasure troves of real seforim, some quite rare, others owned by famed talmidei chachomim, and sometimes even with glosses on the side of the pages that could be considered manuscripts. Even when I found nothing noteworthy or unique, I had the satisfaction of saving a dovor shebikedusha. The sixteenth chapter of Maseches Shabbos spends much time discussing how one may save seforim on Shabbos. How could I not do so during an ordinary weekday?
I was, of course, proud of my son’s tenacity in saving Rav Elyashiv’s kavod and those of the mechabrim whose works he had retrieved. I was even more moved by the fact that, thanks to my rebbetzin’s grandmother, a cousin of Rav Elyashiv, we are related to this tzaddik and were finally able to do something for him or his memory. Even today, some of my children have become bnei bayis at the home of his esteemed son, Rav Binyomin Elyashiv, and other members of the royal mishpacha, but for a moment, we basked in the fact that we had done a tiny bit for kavod haTorah.
On a deeper level, however, we are living in times when kavod haTorah is constantly in a state of degradation. Despite the growing esteem in which talmidei chachomim are held in some circles, there is often a concomitant disdain elsewhere for those who spend their lives devoted solely to Torah and its teachers. I recall vividly when my rebbe, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, inaugurated the new bais medrash of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin on Coney Island Avenue with a maamar about kavod haTorah. As with many of his public discourses, he sought to ingrain in us all respect and reverence for the Torah and gedolei Torah.
On Shavuos (see Pachad Yitzchok, Shavuos 8:24, page 73), Rav Hutner stressed that at Maamad Har Sinai, the great event of the Giving of the Torah, we also were imbued with the spirit of kavod haTorah. He repeated countless times that ain kavod ela Torah, “honor is due only for Torah” (Pirkei Avos 6:3, Tanna Devei Eliyahu Rabbah 2) and even worked on himself to experience it on the highest levels. It was well-known that he would seek to have Rav Aharon Kotler use the word Torah in his presence so that he could experience the “special sweetness, love and veneration that the Lakewood rosh yeshiva felt for the Torah” (Sefer Hazikaron, page 89). Rav Hutner (ibid., page 118) refused to utilize the term “weekend,” because it became a shared appellation for Shabbos and Sunday. This, to him, radiated a sense of disrespect for kedusha that, in turn, reduced the kavod we owe to Torah and all devorim shel kedusha.
The story of the Rav Elyashiv painting evoked in me a yearning to make this a metaphor for rescuing our often lost sense of kavod for all things holy and pure. The respect we give to Shabbos is a wonderful place to begin practicing this kavod for devorim shebikedusha. For instance, it is told in mussar circles that the Alter of Kelm changed every single article of his clothing in honor of Shabbos. No weekday garment remained upon him for Shabbos, since for him, Shabbos was a different world and a different dimension. He himself shone with an otherworldly radiance (Rav Shlomo Wolbe, Shiurei Bereishis 43:34).
Even the learning on Shabbos takes on a different hue when we remember the words of the Chofetz Chaim (quoted by Rav Elya Lopian, introduction to Bereishis, page 38). He taught that Shabbos is the equal of all 613 mitzvos. According to the Vilna Gaon, every letter we learn is another mitzvah. Therefore, whatever we learn on Shabbos may be multiplied by the number of letters times 613. That is the awe and reverence with which we should approach opening a sefer on Shabbos.
Furthermore, in ancient times, even the ignorant were different people on Shabbos. The Mishnah (Demai 4:1) teaches that although we generally do not trust an am ha’aretz – an ignoramus – concerning the laws of terumos and maaseros (tithing), we ask them for information and accept their words on Shabbos. The Rambam in his commentary to the Mishnah explains that this credibility is due to their respect and awe for the day of Shabbos. Do we today have even the level of derech eretz attributed to ancient amei ha’aretz?
In fact, Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu 1:72) sadly reminds us in the name of Rav Tzvi Hirsh Broide that one who does not actually feel the extra kedusha of Shabbos does not have a neshamah yeseirah, the supplemental soul we are granted for Shabbos. Apparently, the neshamah yeseirah is only granted to those who honor the Shabbos enough to receive this monumental gift.
What does it mean to rescue Torah? Rav Simcha Elberg, whom I was privileged to know, wrote of Rav Avrohom Kalmanowitz (Einei Ha’eidah, page 644) that “he was the great savior of Torah in our generation.” Rav Elberg explains that Rav Kalmanowitz, a rov and a rosh yeshiva, “threw away everything, even his own great spiritual stature, to save Torah and its great teachers.”
I doubt that anyone is asking us today for that level of sacrifice. Nor am I advocating any further diving into the dumpster. But there are many opportunities for us to elevate kavod haTorah from the depths to which it has descended. We must speak respectfully at home of our children’s rabbeim, moros and menahalim, even when we might disagree with some policy or specific decision.
One of the gedolim used to recommend straightening all the seforim in our homes on shelves and desks when a pregnant woman and her child were endangered by a breach birth. Often, one upside down sefer turned over did the trick. The Steipler Gaon would learn briefly from a sefer even if he removed it accidentally from the shelf. Our botei medrash should look like the seforim have been used, but they should also be treated with the respect they deserve.
Finally, we must all pitch in to recreate the ancient reverence for our shuls that has so often been shattered. Kiddush clubs, people who leave shul during laining, the haftorah or drashos, and those who talk incessantly wreak havoc upon their own shuls and the rest of Klal Yisroel as well. The most obvious place where there is or is not kavod haTorah is in the bais haknesses. Rabbonim and baalei batim together must realize that our success as individuals and as a nation is largely dependent upon the kavod we give to the most sacred place we have, where the most seforim are found, where the tefillos are attempting to rise to Shomayim and are sometimes tragically stopped by the brick wall of talking or worse during davening.
Let us engage in zerizus to save not just one painting, but the tremendous power of kavod haTorah in our midst.