Knowledge, Wisdom, and the Rabbi

«The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.»
-Kahlil Gibran

This space is often occupied by discussions of how to “manage” knowledge, define knowledge, distribute knowledge, and classify knowledge.  In many ways, these discussions look at knowledge in the abstract, as if knowledge existed without people.

Wisdom is not one particular characteristic but accumulated knowledge and learning combined with common sense and insight.

One can accumulate much knowledge and learning without achieving wisdom.  In fact many do.  But to study in the company of a wise man is something very few get to experience.

Rabbi Mark Cohen was one such  wise man.  When we first met, I was seven and he was my teacher.  He was stern, demanding, perhaps (to a seven year) a bit scary.  He spoke with a strong, foreign accent (he was born in Egypt) and seemed very very old.  I don’t think I appreciated his wisdom then; I only knew that he gave me too much homework and tested me mercilessly on my studies.

But my connection with Rabbi Cohen didn’t end with my wonder years.  He was my teacher for the two years prior to my Bar Mitzvah and taught me to read Torah and Haftarah.  Around that time, I began to see past the Rabbi Cohen who gave assignments and corrected me without pity.  He was exceptionally well informed in world affairs.  He spoke eight languages.  But that wasn’t what made him wise.

Rabbi Cohen, much to my surprise, was very well liked by my parents.  This was an unlikely pairing.  My parents were and are not religious, my father least of all.  Yet they hit it off with this short, super observant rabbi who didn’t try to foist his own personal ways on others.  He taught by example and we all learned.

Rabbi Cohen was my moral compass.  He, more so than anyone I can think of, knew right from wrong.  My parents, when we faced a situation of one kind or another, would say “what would Rabbi Cohen say?”  His Hebrew name was Mordechai and he, just like Mordechai in the Bible, was a hero and a righteous man.

Rabbi Cohen didn’t tell us much about his personal life.  I wish I had pushed him more.  He was born in Egypt in 1907.  When Nasser came to power in 1956, he, as many other Jews, was rounded up and put into a camp.  One day Rabbi Cohen was singled out for a severe beating by the camp commandant but he was saved by a guard.  Who was this person?  Just an illiterate Arab boy whom Rabbi Cohen had tutored in Arabic years before.

He was eventually exiled to Italy.  His wife, Giselle, who knew not of his whereabouts, was also exiled and they ended up on the same ship.  Soon after they found themselves in New York, where Rabbi Cohen answered an advertisement in the Jewish Press for a Hebrew School teacher.  He saw his primary role to teach Torah, not just the Pentateuch (Five Books of Moses), but the entire body of Jewish religious literature, law and teaching, to the next generation.  But it wasn’t just one or two generations.  He taught classes until he reached the age of 90.  And by doing so, thousands were exposed to his wisdom.

Rabbi Cohen died last week.  He was 100 years old.  His funeral was held in the sanctuary where he led prayers and taught students for almost half a century.  It was filled with students, their parents, and their grandparents, to all of whom he had taught something.

His passing leaves a void.  Or perhaps not, as his legacy and teachings do not end with his passing.  One of the many rabbis who eulogized Rabbi Cohen commented on how Rabbi Cohen had prepared his son for his Bar Mitzvah and how Rabbi Cohen, at some point at every Bar Mitzvah, would look up at the Bar Mitzvah boy or Bat Mitzvah girl and say “don’t break the chain.”  That rabbi now passes the same message on to boys and girls in his temple.

Rabbi Cohen taught us how peace and study trump everything else.  It is a lesson I often reflect on.  Now if only the rest of the world would listen.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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