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Sheloshim for Rabbi Joel H. Zaiman z”l
The text I want to share with you today is from the Talmud in Kiddushin and can be loosely titled, “Why Rabbis don’t go in dunk tanks.” If you don’t believe me let me ask you, did you ever see Rabbi Zaiman in a dunk tank?
The Talmud (Kiddushin 32a) records a debate about whether a Rabbi may relinquish the kavod, the respect, that is due them. Rav Yosef said that it was permissible, that a rabbi may waive their own honor. On the other hand, Rav Chisda said that it was not permissible, namely because it is not theirs to give. The debate hinges on whether one earns one’s kavod by their being, by their behavior, by their learning, or by their title. Rav Yosef says that one “earns” the title of rabbi (or really teacher) by studying Torah and that once one has learned that Torah and is deserving of kavod, respect, she may do what she likes with that kavod, even if that means relinquishing it.
BUT. The tradition’s concern, and the reason that Rav Chisda won this debate, is Rav she mochel et kevodo, kevodo machul. It’s catchier in Hebrew but the rough translation is “a rabbi who relinquishes their respect, their respect is gone.” Rav Chisda felt that the kavod due a rabbi or teacher is not exclusively theirs, no matter how learned they are. that kavod is due to them as a symbolic exemplar of the Jewish people and not theirs to give up.
In short, there are some things that once you have given them up, you can not get them back. The Talmud taught it in the context of a rabbi/teacher and I’m teaching it in the context of Rabbi Zaiman but it is just as well applied to each and every one of us. The titles we carry – daughter, mother, sister, doctor, chief executive, president – are ours to earn and then ours to live. This is not to say that we can not laugh at ourselves, or be lighthearted. It’s lesson is one of habituation, we must mold our character and carry ourselves in such a way that the kavod of that title is our own.
Rabbi Zaiman never went in a dunk tank and only wore a Purim costume a few times for a few reasons. It’s true that those were parts of the rabbinate that he enjoyed less than others. But mostly it was because Rav she mochel et kevodo, kevodo machul.
He used to explain it to me by saying that once you’ve become someone at whom people laugh, you can no longer be their rabbi. A rabbi and teacher may earn their kavod through the Torah they learn, and the Torah they transmit, but they keep it by the Torah that they live.
How fortunate we were to have been the beneficiaries of all the Torahs of Rabbi Zaiman’s life. Yehi zichrono livrakha.