Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Rabbi Ride-Around - A Thought for Vayera

On a rabbinic list that I receive, I learned about a program run by Rabbi Ze'ev Smason, popular rabbi of Congregation Nusach Hari B'nai Zion of St. Louis called the "Rabbi Ride-Around."
Basically, Rabbi Smason agreed to ride around in a local park for fifty miles, after of course accruing a significant amount of sponsorship which benefits the shul.
Let me say from the outset that this post is not meant as a criticism of Rabbi Smason, who I don't know personally. Each rabbi must find his own comfort zone in his congregation and community, and find the proper balance between the need for stature and a casual closeness to the membership of the shul. That being said, I'm trying to decide how I feel about the Rabbi Ride-Around.
On one hand, it's a great program. It promotes the values of health and well-being, and raises badly needed money for a good cause. (It seems that the shul is putting up a new building.) Yet, on some level, it seems to me to diminish the kavod of the rav, and therefore the shul and Torah that he represents. This program brings to mind the dunking machine we used to throw sponges at during carnivals for the chance to dunk a favorite teacher. It's fun and good-natured. But is it appropriate? Maybe if other people ran together with the rabbi. I'm not sure. But the rabbi riding alone? Something about it rubs me wrong.
And then I thought about the parshah. The Torah tells us that when the three guests arrived at Avraham's door, he rushed to greet them, and then personally served them a lavish meal. The kicker is the description of how they ate:
וַיִּקַּח חֶמְאָה וְחָלָב וּבֶן הַבָּקָר אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיִּתֵּן לִפְנֵיהֶם וְהוּא עֹמֵד עֲלֵיהֶם תַּחַת הָעֵץ וַיֹּאכֵלוּ
And he took butter and milk and the cattle that he had made for them and placed it before them, and he stood over them under the tree, and they ate
You have to wonder: was it really appropriate for Avraham Avinu, the representative of monotheism in the world, to stand over a group of ragged strangers waiting over them hand over fist? Could he not have brought a servant - which he surely had - to wait on them all, and eat with the guests together? Was Avraham's behavior also not, in some way, a diminution not only of his personal honor, but the God that Avraham so publicly proclaimed? Clearly according to the gemara (Kiddushin 32b), the answer is no.
מעשה ברבי אליעזר ורבי יהושע ורבי צדוק שהיו מסובין בבית המשתה בנו של רבן גמליאל, והיה רבן גמליאל עומד ומשקה עליהם, נתן הכוס לר' אליעזר ולא נטלו, נתנו לר' יהושע וקיבלו; אמר לו רבי אליעזר: מה זה, יהושע, אנו יושבין ורבן גמליאל (ברבי) +מסורת הש"ס: [דרבי]+ עומד ומשקה עלינו? אמר ליה: מצינו גדול ממנו ששמש, (אברהם גדול ממנו ושמש) אברהם גדול הדור היה, וכתוב בו: +בראשית יח+ והוא עומד עליהם! ושמא תאמרו, כמלאכי השרת נדמו לו? לא נדמו לו אלא לערביים, ואנו לא יהא רבן גמליאל ברבי עומד ומשקה עלינו? אמר להם רבי צדוק: עד מתי אתם מניחים כבודו של מקום ואתם עוסקים בכבוד הבריות? הקב"ה משיב רוחות ומעלה נשיאים ומוריד מטר ומצמיח אדמה, ועורך שולחן לפני כל אחד ואחד, ואנו לא יהא רבן גמליאל ברבי עומד ומשקה עלינו?
It happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Tzaddok were celebrating at the wedding of the son of Rabban Gamliel, and Rabban Gamliel stood and served them drinks. He gave the cup to Rabbi Eliezer, who refused to take it, and then gave it to Rabbi Yehoshua, who took it. Rabbi Eliezer said to him, "What is this, Yehoshua? We sit and Rabban Gamliel (the Nasi at the time) stands and serves us drinks?" He said, we find [in scripture] someone even greater who served [others]. Avraham was the leader of his generation, and it is written about him, "and he stood over them." And perhaps you might say that they appeared to him as angels? No, they appeared to him as Arabs. And we should not allow Rabban Gamiel the son of Rebbe to stand over us and serve drinks? Said to them Rabbi Tzadok: How long will you all leave the honor of God, and engage in the honor of men? God Himself blows the wind...sends the dew and grows the earth; He sets the table of each and every individual. And we should not allow Rabban Gamliel the son of Rebbe to stand over us and serve us drink?
Clearly, the thought of the great leader and teacher Rabban Gamliel, standing at the bar at his son's wedding serving drinks disturbed Rabbi Eliezer. It bothered him so much that he could not bring himself to accept a drink. So this debate goes back a long way. But Rabbi Eliezer loses the argument. A rabbi is permitted to forgive his honor - רב שמחל על כבודו, כבודו מחל.
Yet, the conclusion does not come easily. Before telling us the story the Gemara wonders about my issue: "Is the Torah his (the rabbi's), that he may forgive his honor?" God wrote the Torah - so he can forgive his honor. But what right does a rabbi, whose honor stems from the Torah, have to forgive his - and the Torah's - right to the proper level of respect and reverence?
Rava provides a startling answer: אין, תורה דיליה הוא דכתיב ובתורתו יהגה יומם ולילה - "Yes, it is his Torah, as it is written, 'And in his Torah he will delve day and night." In essence, the rabbi who represents God's Torah has the right to decide when his honor must be insisted upon, and when to take a different tact and take a more casual approach.
Rabban Gamliel wanted to serve drinks to his students at his son's wedding. For whatever reason, on that evening he didn't want the reverence. He wanted to tend bar, relax and enjoy together with people whom he cherished. Avraham understood that serving the strangers was perhaps the very best way to bring Godliness to them. The very spectacle of such an honored leader serving them might force them to rethink some of their most deeply held beliefs.
And if Rabbi Smason wants to ride a bike to raise money for his shul, that's great too. I can't say that I would have done it myself. But I'm pretty sure that I couldn't bike fifty miles in one day no matter how much money was on the line.