hachambeharThis Shabbat, Teruma, is the annual Shabbat honoring Hacham David Behar. Here's a re-release of the Dvar Torah I wrote for the occasion:

This past Shabbat, I had the unique honor of delivering a drasha in honor of the late Hacham David J. Behar.  Each year, on Shabbat Perashat Terumah, the Behar family honors his first Shabbat in 1917 as Hazzan of Ezra Bessaroth.

The Torah describes the ark that carried the Tablets of the Covenant: It must be covered with gold on both the outside and the inside. According to the Gemara in Tractate Yomah, there were actually three pieces to the ark: an outer box; set into it was another box, and yet a third box.  The two boxes on either side are to be layered with gold while the inner box is made of wood.

Our sages understand the Aron (ark) homiletically: “Any Torah scholar whose inside is not like his outside – תוכו כבורו – is not a true Torah scholar.”  The scholar is compared to the Aron, in that they are both repositories of Torah; just as the outside and the inside of the Aron are gold, so too,  the Torah scholar’s outer presentation must accurately reflect his inner qualities.

The normative understanding of this dictum is that a Torah scholar must be genuine: He should not put on airs and feign a high level of religiosity, when he is actually lacking spiritually.  The same goes for everyone one of us who professes a connection to Torah study and observance: we have to strive for authenticity.

The Talmud, Tractate Berachot, discusses the transition from the leadership of Rabban Gamliel to that of R. Elazar ben Azaria.  The former had a restrictive Bet Midrash (study hall) entrance policy: Only a student whose outside matched his inside would be allowed in; when R. Elazar took over, the Gemara reports, he removed the guard at the door, and Torah learning became more democratic.

Reading the principle as we have to date raises an obvious question: how did R. Gamliel know whose demeanor matched his inner self? How could he possibly be tuned into the degree to which a student was authentic or not?

Rabbi Aryeh Stechler suggests that the Talmudic principle we cited – תוכו כבורו – has a different meaning: Rather than requiring a person’s external appearance to match his inner essence, the imperative is to have your external actions impact on your internal ethical and spiritual development.  The Sefer Hachinuch is known for his theory that more than anything else, our actions impact on our thought processes and emotions; instead of “waiting” to be inspired, we should, says the Chinuch, avail ourselves of the power of mitzvot to impact on our growth.

Viewing תוכו כבורו this way, it is quite understandable how R. Gamliel would assess students: Those he detected were not going the extra mile in mitzvah performance, he sensed were not growth-oriented.  A lax attitude towards Jewish observance was, for R. Gamliel, a sign that the student was on the road to stagnation.

On the other hand, the ability of action to impact on one’s personal growth is no “quick fix”; change is not guaranteed. This is the symbolism of the wooden box, the possible impediments to this process.

I did not know Hacham Behar personally, but from all the anecdotes of his sons and grandchildren – and from Jewish commitment of those descendants,who ably led the Tefillah this past Shabbat - it’s clear that for Hacham Behar, תוכו כבורו was a guiding principle on both levels: He was a genuine, unpretentious man whose outside matched what was going on inside. He was also a “doer”, someone who understood that, at the end of the day, it’s action that cultivates the Torah personality.