“Kol HaKavod Noa!”
By now you’ve probably heard of the chance encounter – and subsequent viral selfie – on an airplane between HaRav Yosef Zvi Rimon, renowned scholar and posek, and celebrity singer Noa Kirel. He didn’t know who she was and two then had a brief conversation, during which she shared that her grandfather was a rabbi and sofer, and that she had recited morning berachot during her recent Eurovision contests – and kept her cellphone off on Shabbat.
While there are indeed many aspects of this story that are noteworthy, I want to reflect upon one piece of the story which justifies its retelling.
There is a powerful midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7) which serves as an introduction to sefer Bemidbar as well as beautiful prelude to the upcoming chag haShavuot:
“And G-d said to Moshe in the Sinai desert” – from here the Rabbis taught, the Torah was given through three mediums: fire, water and the desert. Fire, as it states (Shemot 19)“And Mt. Sinai was smoking entirely”…water, as it states (Shoftim 5) “The heavens dripped, Yea, the clouds dripped water,” and in the desert, as it says (Bamidbar 1) “And G-d spoke to Moshe in the Sinai desert.”
And why was it given through these three? Just as they are free for the inhabitants of the world, so too, the words of Torah are free, as it states (Isaiah 55), “May all those who thirst go to water.”
Another interpretation: Anyone who doesn’t make himself ownerless like a desert will be incapable of acquiring wisdom and the Torah, hence it was given in the desert.
The midrash is coming to teach us about the nature of the Torah itself – these items are ubiquitous, they are accessible to all, and found in ample supply. Likewise, Torah must be “free” and easily open to all. The word of Hashem must never become the exclusive province of a select few.
The Slonimer Rebbe, Rav Shmuel Berezovski, in his masterful work of drush, Darkei Noam, suggests a deeper interpretation of this midrash. The three arenas through which Torah is acquired correspond to the three items which cause a person, to be removed from this world:
“Rabbi Eliezer Ha’kapar said: Envy, lust, and honor shall bring a man out of this world.” (Avot 4:21)
It is these three which compromise us and render us spiritually vulnerable, and it is the Torah which serves as the antidote to these dangers and moral stumbling blocks.
Jealousy is what we experience when we see that someone else is blessed with something which would want for ourselves. Jealousy leads not only to hatred, but, G-d forbid, theft, or worse, targeted against the subject of our envy. Jealousy is represented by fire, as it burns and rages inside our hearts, causing pain and discontent. And yet with fire we can conquer our displeasure, channeling our heated enthusiasm and passions into better things.
Water represents unbridled love and desire. Unchecked love is dangerous, and it is something which led to the undoing of many a great man and woman. As Shlomo Hamelech (Shir haShirim 8:7) reflected upon the hazards of unbridled love:
“Vast floods cannot quench love, nor rivers drown it.”
But just as fire and water represent potential obstacles and distractions from a life of kedusha, they are also powerful and magnetic draws. It is these two conduits of Torah which are most often resorted to and most relatable. These two typologies are well represented within our schools: Either it is the teachers who are “on fire,” charismatic, excitable, energetic and filled with optimism, or it is the mechanchim who are loving and accepting. They never rebuke, they only speak with kindness and surround us with tenderness and positive reinforcement. Torah is either an Aish Das Lamo, a fiery law which shines forth, or it is the sweet water for those whose mouths are parched and needy (let all who are thirsty go to water).
But then there is kavod, honor, perhaps the strongest motivator and most toxic trait of all. Those who seek honor ultimately crave attention, they want to be noticed and propped up on a pedestal. Today’s youth, so desperate for kavod, will sometimes post revealing and personal information in public spaces, hoping that someone will take notice. They will dare to be different, defiant, and counter-culture, and then complain that they aren’t accepted and celebrated. Adults do the very same – why wasn’t I recognized by my boss? Why didn’t I receive the honor, distinction, or reward? These are all part of the familiar refrains we hear and think about daily.
What we covet more than anything is to be noticed. Our Sages cautioned us (Avot 1:13), that if we run after honor and recognition, kavod will run away from us. It’s counterintuitive, but the true path to receiving the basic human need to be recognized is to abandon kavod and to evade the limelight.
The best way to feel seen is to go into the midbar. By entering a place in which nobody knows your name and in which there are zero expectations to present oneself in a certain way, a person can begin to work on their authenticity.
This past week I was asked to speak to a group of students from St. Louis who were passing through as part of their 8th grade trip. In speaking with them I asked them what it was about their parents and other role models that they appreciated the most? The responses varied from ice cream dates, to reading, to having a catch, to discussing current events. The common denominator was that they get to just be themselves in front of their parents – and that’s what forges a connection. We expend too much effort carefully cultivating a public persona, when the one true desire is to be in a desert and connect there. This is precisely what the midrash means when it concludes its message as follows:
Anyone who doesn’t make himself ownerless like a desert will be incapable of acquiring wisdom and the Torah.
Rav Rimon gave a young celebrity the greatest gift of all – anonymity. When he asked upon meeting her, “Who is Noa?” I’d like to think that it caused her to reflect for a moment. Perhaps she thought, “I’m a pop star and I dance in front of millions of people, but is that really who I am?” And in that moment, she became a granddaughter of a rabbi and sofer, a person who recited her morning berachot and a woman who, on the most important day in her career, chose to observe the sacred day of Shabbat.
By telling her I don’t know who you are, Rav Rimon said, I have no preconceived notions, no assumptions, no expectations. You don’t need to perform for me. He handed her more honor than any of those “kol ha’kavod” signs could have possibly achieved.
As we prepare for kabalat haTorah, let us contemplate the ways in which we have carefully constructed our public image, and perhaps take a moment to retreat into the midbar. There we won’t have the burden of running after recognition, and there we can instead, build a renewed connection to Hashem and His exalted word.