The obligation to honor Torah scholars is mentioned repeatedly in rabbinic literature, and is in fact a branch of the commandment to honor the Torah itself. Rabbi Yehudah Liva, the renowned "Maharal
of Prague," in his brilliant "Netivot Olam" has the following to say concerning this obligation:
"The Talmud states (tractate Makot 22b): Rabba said, "How inane are those who stand in honor of a Torah scroll, yet stand not in honor of a Torah scholar; for the Torah prescribed [a punishment of] forty blows, and the Rabbis came and lessened it by one (i.e. Torah scholars appear to possess even more power than the Torah itself)."
This teaches us the elevated status of the Torah scholar, so that one not assert, "A person who has internalized voluminous Torah knowledge is in essence no different from any other person: He knows much Torah, yet he is not the Torah itself." To the contrary! A Torah scholar is to be viewed like the Torah itself, and is completely analogous to the Torah. Clearly this is the reason the Torah says, "Stray neither to the right nor the left of what they (i.e. Torah scholars) teach you." Just as God in His great wisdom gave us the Torah, so He gave us Torah scholars - an integral part of the Torah itself..."
Does "honor" imply maintaining a degree of distance from the rabbi, or does it in fact entail the opposite - drawing close to, and building up a relationship with him?
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lutzatto, in his exceedingly popular and essential work, "The Path of the Just," classifies the trait of "honor" among those traits which stem from "fear." Fear, in its pure form, indeed spells distance and estrangement. Rabbi Akiva informs us that the words of the Torah, "Fear the Lord your God" include an injunction to "fear" Torah scholars. To honor does not mean distancing and estrangement; instead, it demands that even when a person draws close, the drawing close be carried out with a sense of reverence.
We are all aware that a Jew must honor every human being, and not merely he who is greater than oneself. "Who," the Sages of the Mishna pose, "is deserving of honor? - He who honors every human being." Honoring means allowing room for one's fellow. It means making room for one's fellow in such a way that he sense that he is welcome, and feel that his words will be well received. Certainly we must behave in such a manner towards individuals who are greater than ourselves, and towards Torah scholars who contribute so much to the world through their occupational personalities. Students honor their rabbi by gathering to hear him teach, to receive from him, and to allow the master to reveal his personality and his thoughts.
Honor, then, is not supposed to create a feeling of distance. Clearly, though, honoring God includes a sense of distance and remoteness. Even honoring Torah scholars, when it comes down to it, contains an element of distance.
Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo of Vilna, better known as the "Gaon of Vilna," provides an interesting explanation of the following verses from the Book of Psalms:
"Raise up you heads, O gates, and be uplifted, you everlasting entrances, so that the King of Glory may enter. Who is this King of Glory? - God, the mighty and strong, God, the strong in battle. Raise up your heads, O gates, and raise up, you everlasting entrances, so that the King of Glory may enter. Who then is the King of Glory? God, Master of Legions, He is the King of Glory! (Psalm 24)".
The Gaon addresses the difference between the first verse, in which it is written, "Be uplifted, you everlasting entrances," and the second verse, which reads, "Raise up, you everlasting entrances." The words "Be uplifted" imply coercion. The gates must open in Honor of God. Adversely, the request, "Raise up" is a more gentle beckoning to the gates, as if to say, "Raise yourselves up, so that the King of Glory may enter."
The honor spoken of in the first verse is the result of God's revealing Himself in battle garb - "the strong in battle." Here we have honor which exists independently of the gates, forcibly acquired as a result of the revelation of God's awesomeness. Yet, on the second occasion, the gates open themselves out of honor for the name of God, and with a sense that they are part of God's legions, "soldiers of God."
There are two types of honor. There is a type of honor which a person shows to one who stands before him, and there is a type honor which a person shows to one who stands above him. The honor given to one who stands before is honor of a compulsory nature. Alternately, the honor shown to one's master, one's representative to the authorities, is a pleasant and amiable sort of honor. Both types have their merits.
One of the traits which characterize the generation of the Redemption is "Chutzpah," insolence. Chutzpah is the antithesis of honor. Chutzpah is man's hasty entrance into areas where he does not belong, where he is not fit to enter. Rabbi Avraham Isaac HaCohen Kook,
zt"l, in his seminal work, "Orot," explains that though Chutzpah generally plays a destructive role, in essence it is a trait which is needed for the Redemption era. As a character trait, it has the power to drive the Jewish people into chambers they had been unwilling to enter in previous generations. Therefore, Rabbi Kook calls for rectifying and purifying, rather than going to war with this trait.
We must devote careful consideration to the question of how, in so an insolent generation as our own, the trait of honor can be strengthened. As in many areas, the answer we provide this question should also address what we referred to as compulsory honor - the type of honor which a person shows to one who stands before him; the reaction to such honor will be Chutzpah. If, though, Torah scholars are wise enough to forgo honor for themselves and know how to join the ranks of their students, an honor reflecting the second type mentioned in the Psalms will naturally develop. The foundation of such a step is that the rabbi honor his students, be attentive to them, and respect their feelings and problems. What will result will not be the sort of honor that descends from above to below, but that which rises from below to above. Would that we be worthy of attaining such a level, for it would allow us to merit the fulfillment of the words: "The honor of sages will they inherit."