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A visit with a Torah sage, Rav Dovid Cohen

Should I start with his physical presence? Tall yet not overwhelming, commanding yet unintimidating, flowing white beard, ever present twinkle in his eye. If I had to boil it down to one word: welcoming.

Should I start with his capacious mind? Informed on any topic in the vastness of Torah, be it law, halachah, or lore, aggadah, or commentary, peirush. If you’re there, and you need him to be there, he’s there — instantaneously. If I had to boil it down to one word: gadol, a giant.

Should I start with his capacious soul? His vision takes in the world and yet he is there for each individual in his or her existential specificity. He is dead serious, yet filled with wonder and mischievous humor. If I had to boil it down to one word: kaleidoscopic.

Should I start with his wife, Rebbetzin Leah Cohen? It is hard to imagine a couple whose every moment is designed and executed jointly as is theirs. It all boils down to one word: together, yachad.

But I will start with none of this.

I will start with something else entirely: the Number 10. As in the 10 digits it takes to make a telephone call (at least in the US). It boils down to this: Rav Dovid Cohen’s 10-digit phone number.

It is perhaps the most dialed number in the rabbinic world worldwide. It is the opposite of a robo-call. In a robo-call, one person, typically a politician, calls thousands or hundreds of thousands of people with a single message. In R’ Dovid Cohen’s case, it is just the opposite. Thousands or tens of thousands of people call him. Not with one message, but with thousands or tens of thousands.

The most dialed number: For one hour, twice a day, four days a week, and another hour on two other days of the week, Rav Dovid Cohen makes himself available to the world.

He is asked, in one call after another, questions that cover the breadth of the entire Torah.

The calls are short, the questions (one soon learns) must be well thought out in advance, because the line is always backed up with more callers.

Rav Cohen’s knowledge of Torah and Halachah is encyclopedic and people from his neighborhood and around the world call him with questions, she’elot, in Jewish law. He answers on the spot.

Actually, he has two 10-digit numbers. Typically, his immediate response is “please hold” because he is already on the other line answering someone else’s question.

No one pays him to do this!

Anyone can call. There is no entrance fee, no “pull” needed, no introduction required.

I am not aware of any authoritative decisor of Jewish law, any posek, around the world who answers as many halachic questions as Rav Dovid Cohen.

It all boils down to this: a lifetime of service.

There are four expansive points here. 
 First, in countless instances it is not just question-and-answer. It is a relationship. A friendship. Over the course of time Rav Dovid enters into the lives of countless Jews around the world. Even the quickest exchange with Rav Dovid concludes with his heartfelt good wish to be blessed.

Second, often it is not just the query of an individual and a piece of expertise for a personal situation. The questions Rav David fields also concern community issues, and often require a position of courage, or of empathy, or of great skill. Rav Dovid has resolved countless interpersonal and communal issues over the decades.

Third, it is the acquisition of “the fifth Shulchan Aruch,” the proverbial unwritten fifth volume of the four-volume Code of Jewish Law — the combination of common sense, street smarts, a quick grasp of people and a ready understanding of people’s backgrounds that differ from his own.

Fourth, Rav David connects to all generations, regardless of age.

It all boils down to this: At critical junctures in the lives of countless families — milestones, quandaries, twists-and-turns — Rav David Cohen is there. Always trying to solve. Always setting forth a Halachah of humanity, even when the answer is difficult, as sometimes it must be.

All this is but the tip of the iceberg. 
 I sat down earlier this month with Rav Dovid for the first time in long time. He is in his nineties now (til 120!). He inquired after my health and I shared a verse from Psalms 116:8 which summed it up: “You rescued me from death [my heart surgery], my eye from tears [my eye surgery], my foot from stumbling” [my foot surgery].

Whereupon — song.

Rav David, preeminent halachic scholar, the final word for many complex halachic issues around the world, starts singing!

He is singing that verse from Psalms, singing it to a tune that he himself composed.

He informs me that he has composed many niggunim (tunes) to verses in Psalms and elsewhere in Scripture. I did not know this. One of his niggunim, he says, I may already know, just that I might not know that it is he who composed it. Then, apologizing that his voice “is not what it used to be,” he sings it for me.

It was very moving. If I were a music critic, I could characterize it for you, but I can’t. I can only leave it at this: I was very moved.

So Rav Dovid Cohen is not an intellect buried in musty tomes. Nor is he a lofty, multi-talented “Renaissance Man” whose many skills one must admire from afar. He is full of smiles and stories and good doses of laughter mixed in to his withering command of the sacred sources, their meaning and application.

His father, he told me, could make anything he said a play on words or a bit of wry humor. Rav Dovid is his father’s son.

But make no mistake, the primary focus of a discussion with Rav Dovid is his never-ending, piercing and innovative interpretations of Jewish sacred scripture. There is a term for his: “ma’ayan ha-mitgabber, a flowing, ever expanding natural spring.”

I mention to Rav Dovid that I am involved in an exploration of the meaning of numbers in Judaism and raised the issue as to which numbers might be exaggerations. Boom! Rav Dovid regales me with a relevant dvar Torah, tied in with a story about the Hazon Ish (d. 1953), the legendary Torah authority.

Before I continue, I might observe that Rav Dovid points to a volume at the end of a pile of books on an adjacent desk. I pull out one, then another, under his instruction, before I get to the one he means. Presto! It is a volume published in 1942 dedicated to the meaning of numbers in Judaism. It has escaped my lengthy bibliography. Rav Dovid had no idea I would bring this up. As I said, his knowledge is encyclopedic.

Now, the Hazon Ish was extremely exacting with how he allotted his time, yet he asked a certain visitor (I forget the name Rav Dovid shared) to repeat for him again and again his take on an apparent discrepancy in the Biblical text. All of the Biblical tribes were summoned to the ancient war against Midian, 1,000 soldiers per tribe. Yet, the text records, 12,000 had to be mobilized against their will (Numbers 31:5-6). This was to their credit, since they knew that Moses would die when the war was over and they did not want to hasten his coming death by hurrying off to war.

But wait. There were 13 tribes, including Levi and the two sons of Joseph, so 1,000 soldiers per tribe should have yielded 13,000 soldiers, not 12,000. A discrepancy!

The Hazon Ish’s visitor offered this resolution: The tribe of Levi occupied a higher spiritual plane. It knew only what was required, so it served willingly, with complete selflessness, which means that only 12,000 were mobilized against their will. Which is why the Torah mentions only 12,000 mobilized soldiers.

“Meaning,” said Rav Dovid, closing in on the point, “you see the number 13 can be an exaggeration. It means more, a lot; not necessarily a specific number such as 1,000 more.”

This, I need to make it a point to remember. But not Rav Dovid’s tune; I do not need to remember that, for he hands me a CD with this tune and others he has composed, as well as with tunes “from the Ukraine.” He heard them in his youth and they would be lost forever if he did not record them, he says.

Promptly added on to the gift of the CD is Rav Dovid’s latest volume. 
 He is, he says, partly puzzled and partly joyed, “the busiest person I know.” (Recall, he is in his nineties.) He has published many volumes of commentary on the Torah, and he is now working on 13 more, “without exaggeration.”

The whole picture begins to emerge. This man who volunteers his time daily to the world also manages to compose tunes and write sacred tomes — and all this is not even his job! That is spiritual leader of Cong. Gevul Yaavetz in Brooklyn, for many decades now.

The whole picture? Not really. I would have to include so much more. For example, I would have to include Rav Dovid as the “go to” halachic authority for countless outreach rabbis with their knotty halachic issues.

I would have to include Rav Dovid’s keen interest in mental health and family issues. He has been a pioneer in applying Halachah to these areas, serving as the halachic authority for psychologists and Ohel Children’s Home.

Speaking of family, I would have to return to Rebbetzin Leah Cohen. People who are having trouble in their marriage could profitably spend five minutes with Rabbi and Rebbetzin Cohen. People not having trouble in their marriage could spend the same five minutes just to come away energized and uplifted.

Kind of like the rhythms of Rav Dovid’s niggun that keep ringing in the back of my head and like the ringing of his phones — the inner melodies and the outer melodies. Concentric circles. Symbols of the many wings of Torah — the canopies — of this treasure in our generation, Rav Dovid Cohen, may his years and health and those of Leah Cohen be extended to 120!

Copyright © 2023 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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