This morning’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, does not have the most exciting narrative. It’s mostly about taking a proper census of the Jews, how many there were in each tribe and how they were ordered and ranked. It was necessary in the formation of this new nation that suddenly appeared after the Exodus, but with its mind-numbing detail, even the commentaries have a difficult time finding much to say.
Tonight is the festival of Shavuot. It’s customary to study Pirkey Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) on Shabbat in the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. And so on this last Shabbat before Shavuot let’s study one of its most famous passages (4:1): Ben Zoma omeyr, eyzehu chacham? Halomeyd mikol Adam…Eyzehu gibor, hakoveysh et yitro…Eyzehu ashir, hasameyach b’chelko, Eyzehu m’chubad, ham’chabeyd et habriyot.
Ben Zoma here asks 4 questions: Who is wise, who is strong, who is rich, and who is honored. Most people think that those are 4 easy things to define. Who is wise? He who has several graduate degrees. Who is strong? He who can beat up someone else. Who is rich? He who has lots of money. And who is honored? He who is treated with respect by others.
But Ben Zoma gives us 4 different definitions that seem counter-intuitive. Who is wise? He who is willing to learn from anyone and everyone. Who is strong? He who is able to control himself. Who is rich? He who is content with what he has. And who is honored? He who honors others.
There has been much written about Ben Zoma’s 1st 3 questions and how profound his answers are. But much less is written about the 4th: Who is honored? And so I’d like to elaborate on that this morning by sharing 2 stories.
Today much of the world’s focus is on the royal family in England with the wedding at Windsor Castle in London—I think it’s happening right now—of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. And so in honor of this wedding, my 1st story is from former Chief Rabbi of the UK, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Sacks and his wife Elaine once hosted a dinner for a number of distinguished people. They went over every detail of the menu and how each item was to be served with the maids and the chef, because they wanted to be sure that everything was just so.
The meal went well. The guests stayed for hours, and everyone seemed to be having a grand old time. When it came time for the guests to leave, they took their coats and lined up to say a gracious thank you to Rabbi Sacks and Elaine—all but one. There was one person who stayed behind and asked their host and hostess if they would please show him to the kitchen. Why would he want to go there?
When he got there, the guest thanked each of the maids and each of the cooks. He told them that the service was done just right, and that the food was delicious. And he apologized for staying so long. He told them that he felt badly that they would be late in getting home to their families. And when the maids and the cooks asked for his autograph, he signed his name for each one. Can you guess who this man was? It was Prince Charles!
I’m sure these maids will never get over the graciousness with which he treated them that night. I don’t know if Prince Charles knew Pirkey Avot or not, but the way in which he treated the hired help that night was surely a fulfillment of what Ben Zoma taught: Who is honored? He who honors others. Here was the prince of England taking time to thank the maids and the cooks at his host’s house for making their dinner so pleasant.
My 2nd story is about Dr. Allen Rosenthal, z”l, may his memory be for a blessing. For those of you who are relatively new to Shaarei Shamayim, Allen Rosenthal was our founding president who died at the tender age of 66—5½ years ago. His presence is sorely missed. Allen’s affection for people was so enormous, so giving, so loving that we all felt that Allen was part of our family. He was so open, so tolerant…it made no difference to him if you were rich or poor or white, yellow or black…he loved you with an unqualified love.
Allen was a shul mentch—his life revolved around the synagogue and worshipping Gd. He was an inspiration to all who came. Everyone was immediately greeted with the most wonderful loving hug. He made you feel so special and loved. His voice filled the shul as it carried the shul’s prayers to heaven. His voice was infectious and made everyone just want to sing with him. Sometimes he would interject—sometimes right in the middle of my sermon—with some great spiritual insight. And when he blew the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, you could literally feel his energy fill you with holiness. How he blew the shofar his last year—in his condition—no one knows, but it was the most powerful shofar blowing I ever experienced. There wasn’t a dry eye in the shul.
Allen was a renowned pediatric dentist who was sought after to lecture all over the world. He was also a man of some means who lived on Springdale Road—one of Atlanta’s most fancy neighborhoods. And yet, when there was a work day to fix up the shul he was always the 1st to arrive. I was somewhat taken aback when I 1st saw this renown pediatric dentist taking a vacuum cleaner and cleaning all the shul carpets and setting up tables and chairs week after week. Most of us know that Allen was somewhat OCD (obsessive/compulsive). He would use that to his advantage. For one thing, this is a good thing for a dentist. Every Shabbos morning he would open the shul and close it after services. Coming early as he did, he would touch every single chair to make sure it was set properly.
Isn’t this a case of Ezehu m’chubad? Ham’chabeyd et habriyot (Who is honored? One who honors others)? I tell you these 2 stories today because it seems to me that they are literally fulfillments of Ben Zoma’s teaching. They teach us that the truly honored people are not those who have plaques on their walls or are given honorary degrees. The truly honored people are those who honor others—no matter what station in life they’re at.
So if you should ever have Prince Charles of England as a guest at your table, be prepared in case he asks for permission to go into the kitchen in order to thank the hired help for their service, and in order to apologize if the meal has gone too late and kept from being home with their families.
And if you don’t have Prince Charles at your table, remember Dr. Allen Rosenthal and what he has meant for our shul. It’s not so hard for people of means to write a check of support from time to time. It is hard—and therefore noteworthy—when they’re not afraid to help with even the physical work to make sure things are right. I learned so many lessons from Dr. Allen Rosenthal—one of which is the lesson of Ben Zoma: Eyzehu m’chubad? Ham’chabeyd habriyot (Who is truly honored? The one who honor others).
Mazal Tov to Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. May they be truly happy together, and may they learn to practice this lesson as Prince Charles and Dr. Rosenthal did. And may we practice this lesson as well. For if we do, we will be remembered and honored during our lifetimes and after. Amen!