Monday, Jun 10, 2024

What is Kavod?




I remember it like yesterday. It wasn’t long after my marriage. I was living in Lakewood when a family member came to town for A visit. It was so nice to have a guest. That day, I brought in the mail to our tiny apartment. When I put it on the table, the family member noticed the way the envelope on the table was addressed. “Wow!” he exclaimed. “Choshuv… ‘Rabbi’ Avrohom Birnbaum. You are a rabbi! When did you get semicha?”

My reply? “Welcome to Lakewood!”

I explained: “The title ‘Rabbi’ in Lakewood just means one thing: that you are a male and not a female. Nothing else. There is zero kavod in being called ‘Rabbi,’ because everyone is a rabbi in Lakewood.”

It was this story that came to mind this week when I was thinking about Rabi Akiva’s talmidim. We all know that the reason we undertake customs of aveilus during Sefirah is because the talmidim of Rabi Akiva died in a terrible plague. Chazal teach us that the reason they were struck by the plague was because they were not noheig kavod toward each other.

How Were the Talmidim of Rabi Akiva Not Noheig Kavod Toward Each Other?

What does it mean, I thought to myself, that they were not noheig kavod toward each other? Did they perhaps call each other names? Is it possible that Reuven said to Shimon, ‘You fool! That sevara is the stupidest thing I have heard in a long time!’? Or, when they were sitting in the yeshiva lunchroom, did Levi looked at Yehuda’s plate and say, ‘You are a fat slob. Why don’t you leave some over for others?’”

Chas veshalom! We are talking about Rabi Akiva’s talmidim. We are talking about absolute spiritual giants. When Chazal tell us that they did not deal with each other with the requisite honor, they meant something much more aidel, something entirely different.

What is True Kavod?

So, let’s turn the question around and ask it in a positive way: If I want to give someone kavod, if I want to truly honor someone else, what should I do? Should I call him, “Harav Hagaon”? Should I seat him at the mizrach vant in shul? When his daughter gets engaged, should I put an ad (a full page) in the paper indicating how ecstatic I am that the great “rosh verishon lechol dovor shebekedusha,” the “noggid,” the “pillar of support for Torah in our generation,” is making a simcha and how all the celestial worlds are rejoicing in his simcha?

In truth, however, that is not kavod either. That is just protocol. There is a certain protocol in our community. That person is “Hagaon,” another person is the great philanthropist, one woman is the mechaneches, another is the kallah teacher or the “speaker”…

All these things are not kavod. Rather, they are titles that we dispense to categorize people. Okay, so what, then, is kavod? What does it mean when you want to give someone kavod?

The answer? The greatest kavod you can give a person is recognizing an intrinsic maalah, a quality, of that person. Not an official title, not protocol, not some canned poetic acrostic that a good copywriter was paid to write, but something that is part and parcel of who he or she is after you strip away all the titles and protocols that we use in our times.

The One Time a Philanthropist Was Given True Kavod

I recently saw a story in the Kuntrus Az Nidberu (from where many of the ideas in this article were gleaned) that illustrates this point. I thought it was remarkable, so I am sharing it with you.

It happened a few decades ago. Rav Shlomo Wolbe, who for decades served as mashgiach of Yeshiva Be’er Yaakov, where he impacted generations of talmidim, eventually left Be’er Yaakov and moved to Yerushalayim, where he opened a bais hamussar.

One day, Rav Wolbe was informed by a talmid that the philanthropist who gave the lion’s share of the money to establish the bais hamussar was coming to Yerushalayim the next day and would be visiting the bais hamussar. Rav Wolbe was asked to come and perhaps say some short words of welcome to the illustrious guest.

Rav Wolbe agreed. The next day, the wealthy man came, and Rav Wolbe got up to say a few words.

What did he say? He said, “Today we have with us a distinguished guest. He is the person who gave the funds used to build this holy place. We thank him for his generosity.”

That was it. That was the end of the praise. No more talk about his money. No talk about what he gave. Nothing.

Now, before you think that this is the end of the story, let us relate how Rav Wolbe continued.

“It is customary when a donor comes to praise him for the wonderful things that he does. I want to tell you a bit about our guest. You should know that he has a lot of money. He is very wealthy, but I want to tell you something else about him. His wife is disabled. He has all the money in the world to hire aides to assist her, but he won’t do that. He values her so much that he himself is the one who takes care of her every need. He won’t let others do it. He does it himself.”

The donor sat there. First, his face turned red. Then, tears started forming in his eyes and he became extremely emotional. Finally, when he found his tongue and was able to speak, do you know what he said?

“This is the first time in my life,” he said, “that someone truly gave me kavod. I never received kavod such as I received today.”

(These words should not be misconstrued as looking askance or even having an opinion on whether someone should hire help to take care of family members who need it. Every family is different, and every circumstance is different, and far it be from us to even insinuate an opinion on such a personal and weighty matter.)

All Chitzoniyus Aside…

Now let’s stop for a minute. This donor was a well-known philanthropist who gave a lot of money to many different organizations. He was a person who people obsequiously flattered all the time. He was a person who got full page ads with wonderful titles about his caring heart, his love of Torah, his love for talmidei chachomim, and his pursuit of tzedakah and chesed.

Yet, he instinctively understood that all this was not kavod. It was just protocol. That is what you do when you want to “shmeer a gvir.” It didn’t point to any of his intrinsic qualities that characterized his essence. What Rav Wolbe did, however, was publicly recognize the man’s essence, his true quality. He recognized the middos of devotion, care, loyalty and consistency, day in and day out, middos that no one else had seen. He thereby gave the philanthropist true kavod. Not just titles and bluff, but true kavod!

With that story as our backdrop, what does being noheig kavod zeh b’zeh mean? Perhaps it means finding the nekudah tovah, or the nekudos tovos, the truly admirable qualities in a person’s essence, and recognizing them. Really giving recognition, not just empty words, phrases and platitudes.

Sefirah: A Time to Recognize the Intrinsic Value of Others

During what is left of Sefirah, perhaps it would be a good idea to think about giving kavod to our fellow. Kavod is very personal. It means truly recognizing the intrinsic maalos of other people after you strip away all the layers of labels that society places on them. No, it is not the car they drive, the house they live in, or the job title he or she has. It isn’t even whether he is “learning” or “working.” These are just superficial descriptions. It isn’t whether she was head of GO or head counselor. It isn’t even if she visits a nursing home or volunteers to help with special children. All these things are wonderful, but they are still titles and descriptions.

The question is: What is he or she? What is their essence? What is the maalah that comes from their true penimiyus?

Yes, in a world that is so full of chitzoniyus, so full of almost obscene superficiality, we ourselves sometimes become confused as to what constitutes kavod.

Let us resolve to try to cut through all the extraneous hype and give true kavod to others by recognizing who they are, not what they are.



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