Torah My Father Taught Me

Shavuot is “z’man matan torahteinu” – the time of the giving of the Torah. Torah is most effectively taught by example. In honor of my father’s 80th birthday – and Shavuot – I would like to share some of the most important lessons he has taught me and my five siblings.

I have always associated honesty with my father. He went far beyond the commandment not to bear false witness. In all my life I cannot recall him ever even shading the truth. On his 80th birthday, he gave each of us children a copy of his memoirs (we had asked him to write them). In them, he wrote about his days at Harvard and how ubiquitous the motto Veritas (truth) was throughout the campus. He said that this had a tremendous impact on him. As a child, I knew that I had to be honest because I didn’t want people to ever think a child of Harvey Gelb would lie.

My father is loyal. He grew up in Old Forge, PA – a small town next to Scranton. He was the first high school graduate from that high school in twenty five years to be admitted to Harvard. Scranton was a dying town but after he finished college and law school at Harvard he decided to return and set up a private law practice near his family. Part of this decision was based on the mitzvah of honoring ones parents and part was to pay back the community that had supported him. When I moved to Boston about ten years ago, my father told me I should look up an old friend of his, Howard Gardner. Howard Gardner developed the theory on multiple intelligences and is a well-known professor on the Harvard campus. I emailed Professor Gardner, who invited me to visit him on campus. Upon meeting him he said to me, “your father is my hero!” I asked him why. He explained that my dad went to Harvard and CAME BACK to Scranton. He said that my dad was a tremendous role model to him and others about what a Scranton boy or girl could accomplish.

After eighteen years of private practice and public service, my father had his own “Lech L’cha” experience. He had a dream to be a law professor and I believe some interest in moving west. He was offered a job at the University of Wyoming and decided to move his whole family to Laramie, WY (AKA Gem City of the Plains). He made this decision jointly with my mom, Lois, and I remember having some input into the decision as well (I was 9). The important lesson to me was that you had to take risks sometimes to achieve your dreams and that you shouldn’t be afraid to make big changes. As long as you have your family with you, you can do almost anything. He taught for 33 years at Wyoming and was the holder of the law school’s first ever endowed chair. I am fiercely proud of my Wyoming heritage and believe that it had a tremendous impact on my life’s choices, including becoming a rabbi.

Whether in Wyoming or Scranton, my father always practiced “big tent” hospitality. He told us that he wanted to be like Abraham, whose tent was open to all. From ranchers to senators and from Chabad to Reform Jews, everyone passed through our home. We children were always allowed at the grown up table and given the opportunity to meet and converse with our guests. My dad had a way to make everyone feel comfortable; he took interest in them and they left feeling valued and listened to. The mitzvah ofHachnasat Orchim (welcoming guests) is one that I treasure and have tried to pass on to my children.

There are so many lessons that my father has taught me that I cannot possibly recount them all here. However, the key point is about his methodology. The best way to teach Torah is to live as an example of it. I learned from my dad because of the way he has lived his life over many years. Sure, he spoke about his values too, but the lessons that resonate are the ones that we witnessed as well. I suspect that this most important lesson has driven me to my career choice. For it is at Camp Ramah where we know that being a dugmah (example) is the most profound teaching of all. Thanks Dad!

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