Horton hears a humble reflection

Drasha in the memory of Meir Mishkoff, gabbai of the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates

Rabbi Mayer Waxman,

Young Israel
Young Israel
Young Israel Website

The following is dedicated to the memory of Meir Mishkoff, gabbai rishon of the Young Israel in Jamaica, New York and president of American Friends of Young Israel. Mr. Mishkoff passed away suddenly earlier this week.

“And, down on the dust speck, the scared little mayor quick called a big meeting in Who-ville Town Square. And his people cried loudly. They cried out in fear: “We are here! We are here! We are here! We are here!”…”

Horton responded, “Don’t give up! I believe in you all!

A person’s a person, no matter how small!

And you very small persons will not have to die if you make yourselves heard!

So come on, now, and TRY!”

“This,” cried the mayor, “is your town’s darkest hour!

The time for all Whos who have blood that is red

to come to the aid of their country!” he said.

“We’ve GOT to make noises in greater amounts!

So, open your mouth, lad! For every voice counts!”

Relevant words of Yom Kippur wisdom from a man whose Sneetches taught us of the ignorance of racism, whose Lorax taught us about the importance of environmentalism, and whose Cat in the Hat taught us not to leave little children home unattended.

We believe in the virtue of humility. We know that we must be modest. But still as we all daven together on Yom Kippur, we have to believe that we are each important contributors to the community. Every one of us makes a difference. Perhaps, then, we don’t truly understand what it means to be humble.

The Mishnah at the end of Sotah [49a] tells us “m’shemes Rabi, batal anava…- when Rebbi Yehuda Hanassi died, humility ceased to exist.” Rav Yosef in the gemara is sure that this must be a corrupt version of the text, as this text, as stated, clearly is inaccurate. Rav Yosef says, “Lo Tisni ‘anava’ – do not list the word humility [as no longer existing,] – d’ika ana – because there’s me.” You can’t say humility is not around, because I’m around, and I am humble.

Sure doesn’t sound humble. To us. But Rav Yosef is trying to be objective and honest. Rav Yosef is an Amora – a rabbinic sage and contributor to Torah sh’bal peh – to The Oral Torah. He knows what humility means – he dedicated his life to it. Were he to learn that when Rebi Yehuda Hanassi died humility ceased to exist and not question it, he wouldn’t be learning Torah, he’d be memorizing statements. But his love for Torah, for truth and for humility compelled him to speak out.

Rabbi Frand suggests in the name of Rabbi Leib Chassman, that if someone denies who he or she is, that is not modesty – that is foolishness. A person who denies his or her own identity and talents is not humble. An 'anav' – a humble person – can know precisely who he or she is.

Rabbi Frand reports that Rav Chatzkel Abramsky, zt"l, the venerated head of the Beis Din of London, once needed to testify in a secular case in which the Beis Din was sued by a shochet [ritual slaughterer] who had been fired. The attorney for the Beis Din asked Rav Abramsky to state his name and his position. The attorney then asked, "Is it true that you are the greatest living halakhic authority on the European continent?" Rav Abramsky said, "Yes. That is true."

“At that point the judge interjected and said, 'Rabbi Abramsky, is that not rather haughty on your part? I thought that your laws and ethics teach you to be humble.' Without any hesitation, Rav Abramsky responded, 'I know we are taught to be humble. But I am under oath.'"

“The point of this story is that Rav Chatzkel Abramsky was aware that he was the greatest living halakhic authority on the European continent. Recognition of his true status was not haughtiness.”

In fact, failing to recognize your own intrinsic value – your true status – can negatively affect others about who you care. I recently learned this lesson the hard way. I don’t tend to think that my social schedule really matters to others. I am blessed to have loving family and friends, but I don’t always go out of my way to attend simchas or shivas because I take it for granted I won’t be missed. I recently missed such an event for someone about whom I care – and I was told that my absence, my silence, was noticed. Not only noticed, but was hurtful.

My point is not to make this about me – quite the opposite – my point is that by downplaying my own value I did the last thing I wanted to do: I hurt someone about who I cared. When you fail to recognize the impact you have on someone else’s life, you stand to hurt that person.

And everyone who comes into contact with others has an impact on others. You are important as a child of parents and/or as a parent of children and/or as a sibling, as a spouse, as an employee, as a boss and as a friend. From the first time I took this shtender 14 years ago I made it clear that my role here is a bit confusing: I’m not just a rabbi, I’m also a member.

And I think of myself as more member than rabbi. But I have learned over the years that people who daven in this minyan have not only been uplifted on the Yomim Norraim, but have had lasting positive thoughts and feelings and influence from this minyan throughout the year.

I hope that we can all continue to have such lasting experience from our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur davening, and I will try to be more cognizant that sometimes my role in our shared experience too extends into the year. And if I have in any way offended or hurt anyone here I apologize and request forgiveness. And of course the devoted baalei tefilla play at least as an important a role in making this minyan special.

But I want to go into Yom Kippur particularly thanking the gabbaim who make this minyan possible, who work tirelessly for the community, and who, often behind the scenes, run so many aspects of the shul.

The Gemara in Brachos [34a] tells us that “Ha-over lifnei haTeva – one who passes before the ark – a euphemism for leading the prayer services – tzarich lisarev – must refuse.” Rashi explains that “K’sheomrim lo,”lech” – when they – the gabbai – tells him to go, “ya’aseh atzmo k’lo rotzeh – he should present himself as if he does not want to [lead the prayers,] – k’lomar, “Eini ‘k’day” – as if to say, “I am not worthy.” The Gemara says one who does not refuse is like a cooked food without salt. Conversely, one who refuses too much is likened to a food with too much salt. The gemara tells the proper way to behave; when first asked to lead the prayers, the person should refuse. The second time the person is asked he should move as if to be contemplating going, and on the third time the person should get up and go to the place from which the davening is led; he should accept his responsibility.

This is also brought down as a halachah in the Shulchan Aruch, that a person who is asked to daven for the amud should not accept the first time he’s asked to lead, the second he should stir, and the third he should accept. The Gemara [ibid] notes that there are 3 things that are bad in excess, but good in moderation: yeast, salt, and refusal.

The Mishna Breurah points to a Tosfos regarding a story in the Gemara. The Gemara in Pesachim [86b] recounts a visit Rav Huna b’reih d’Rav Nasan paid to the home of Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak. The members of Rav Nachman’s house asked their guest his name, and he responded “Rav Huna.” They offered Rav Huna to sit on the couch, so Rav Huna sat on the couch. They offered him a cup of wine, and he accepted it on the first offer and drank it, and even though it was small he took two drafts to finish it – which he later explained was done because that is the respectable way to drink.

Each of Rav Huna’s small behaviors displeased his hosts. They asked him, “Why did you call yourself “Rav Huna?”” It seems they took that little act of using his title as a haughty act. Rav Huna responded “Baal Hashem ani – that is my name,” and Rashi explains that Rav Huna was called Rav Huna from the time he was very young; it’s as if “Rav” was not his title, it was what he was called, I guess even by his wife and friends – it was a longstanding nickname. Other Rishonim suggest Rav Huna meant, ‘I earned Smicha – [ordination], it is now my title and by what I am called.’ It was not meant to be haughty, it was an identifier.

When I worked in a Rabbinic position I initially shied away from using the title, but a beloved mentor of mine Rabbi Steven Dworken, Alav HaShalom, said I’m a rabbi and I should identify myself as such. One of the lessons I understood his point to be was that I was doing a disservice to my professional role and thereby to anyone who was speaking to me professionally in that role, by leaving out that identifier. By my thinking I was being modest, but I was conveying to others who sought rabbinic input – at whatever low level I might be able to provide it – by my leaving out the fact I was a rabbi I was telling them that they and their issues were not important enough to warrant rabbinic consultation. I might have thought I was being modest, but I was being so at their expense.

Back at Rav Nachman’s house, the people questioned why Rav Huna sat on the couch after they offered him to sit on the couch. They felt they were being courteous by offering, but they expected Rav Huna to decline, and to stand or to sit on the floor. He responded, “Kol mah sheyomar licha ba’al habayis, aseh – whatever the homeowner – the host – tells you, his or her guest, to do, you do.” Rav Huna said ‘I might not think it is polite to sit on the couch either, but it is more impolite to ignore or disobey the request of my host.’ A lot of what we view as courtesy and convention is culturally specific. If we impose our strictures on our hosts, it doesn’t mean we are being conventional. It means we are being rude. Some households expect everyone to take their shoes off upon entering; other households might think that too casual. “Kol mah sheyomar licha ba’al habayis, aseh.”

They asked Rav Huna why he accepted the cup right away, instead of refusing – at least at first. Rav Huna answered “misarvin likatan v’ein misarvin ligadol – you refuse what is offered by someone who is small, but you do not refuse one who is big; you can deny someone of low stature, but you cannot refuse someone of high stature – if someone of high stature asks you to do something, you do it.” Of course this generality has its limitations. This is not a call to cause harm to self or others or to sin because someone who is important said so.

In fact, Tosafos here explains that this reasoning does not even apply to performing acts which can be perceived as haughty – which is why Rav Huna could not apply this reason to why Rav Huna agreed to sit on the couch and had to invoke the will-of-the-host reason to explain that decision. But the message is that considering others, even at the expense of your own humility – even if it makes you appear haughty – considering others is imperative.

I was once given a book called Sefer HaGabbai, by HaRav Dovid Avraham Spector. When he talks about refusing the gabbai’s request to daven for the amud he presents it from the side of the gabbai. He says in light of the fact that people have learned to refuse the first time, to make a move the second time and to accept the third time, the gabbai should not take a first refusal seriously and should ask the person to daven another two times – but no more than that, as sometimes the refusal is real. So this humility has become a rote dance.

But there are two conditions in light of which we might want to revisit the way we do this dance. Rabbi Spector cites Rav Mordechai Eliyahu to say that when there is no gabbai, and the congregants are left to ask each other to lead, there is no need for the one asked to daven for the amud to refuse. It seems Rav Eliyahu looks at this act of “modesty” as more of a well-intentioned show that can only be performed when the actors are all present, but when the lead – the gabbai – is away, there is no need for the show to go on, rather the congregated can get to the business of davening.

At the opposite end is the caveat the Shulchan Aruch adds based on the Gemara in Psachim; “v’im ha’omer lo sh’yered hu adam gadol, eino m’sarev lo klal – if the one who asks him to daven for the amud is an “adam gadol,” a big person, an important person, then the one asked to lead the prayers should not refuse at all.

Together, these two points suggest either that the gabbai is aware that by signing on to be a gabbai the gabbai is signing on for the inherent humility of the position and the understanding that his requests will be refused, or worse, that the gabbai is not considered an adam gadol. In our shul we are fortunate to have gabbaim each of whom is an adam gadol.

But more globally, the role of gabbai shows not only the true humility of the gabbaim, rather it also shows how when one acts humble, one stands to insult those around him. When the gabbai asks me to daven and I say “no, I’m not worthy,” whether or not I believe it or mean it, what I am saying to the gabbai is, at least, “You’re not a good judge of character,” “You’re not good at performing your role,” or worse, “I don’t consider you an important person.”

Of course my point is not just about our great gabbaim, nor am I saying that it is wrong to insincerely refuse to daven the first time the gabbai asks, considering that refusing is what the gemara tells us to do. My point, though, is to give careful thought to what you’re implying about or doing to others when you negate yourself. My point is that if you care for someone and have reason to believe someone cares for you, then your acts of humility impact someone.

As the little wall hanging my mother bought for me in my youth says, “I know I’m somebody ‘cause God don’t make no junk.” And as such your input is imperative not just for you this Yom Kippur, but for you as a contributing member of this minyan. If we are all standing here together, every individual’s contribution is needed to put us over the edge. If you don’t realize and accept that you are valuable you stand to detract from the effort all of us are making.

It seems relevant to add that Dr. Seuss wasn’t really a doctor; he gave himself that title, a bit self-consciously if not self-deprecatingly, because he knew his father always wanted him to be a doctor.

Back to his words: “When they got to the top, The lad cleared his throat and he shouted out, “Yopp!”

And that Yopp… That one small extra Yopp put it over! Finally, at last! From that speck on

that clover their voices were heard! They rang out clear and clean. And the elephant smiled.

“Do you see what I mean?... They’ve proved they ARE persons, not matter how small. And

their whole world was saved by the Smallest of ALL!”