About 20 years ago, there was a shul outside of the New York Metropolitan area that was looking for a rabbi. There were many candidates for the one position. According to a source, the eventual winner distinguished himself by starting his Shabbos-day sermon with the following anecdote:
A congregation organized a trip to Israel. They all booked tickets on the same flight. Unfortunately, their plane was hijacked. The hijackers chose two people at random to be their first victims. The two chosen were the rabbi and a congregant. The hijacker asked the rabbi for his last request. “Please let me address my congregation for the final time,” the rabbi said. The hijacker turned to the congregant and asked, “And what is your last request?” The congregant replied, “Kill me first.”
Apparently, back in the pre-9/11 days, that joke resonated so well with the crowd that the speaker was chosen as the new rabbi. Along those lines, I once heard the following quip: The last thing that a rabbi wants to do is speak and the last thing a congregation wants is to hear their rabbi speak, yet for some reason they both go through the motions.
If the rabbi does not really want to speak and is just speaking solely to earn a paycheck, perhaps, in certain circumstances, he is not even allowed to speak.
The Mishnah in Yoma (52b) describes the path that the Kohen Gadol used to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. When he emerged from the second curtain that actually opened up to the Kodesh HaKedoshim, he walked facing the south toward the Aron Kodesh (or its designated place). After he performed the Avodah, he walked backwards out of the Kodesh HaKedoshim with his face still facing the south. The Kohen Gadol was not supposed to turn his back on the Aron. The Gemara says the source for this conduct is derived from the departure of Shlomo HaMelech from the Mishkan in Givon. He did not simply turn his back on the Mishkan; rather, he distanced himself somewhat while walking backwards, and only afterwards turned himself around.
The Shulchan Aruch rules that this halacha applies to a sefer Torah as well. One should not turn his back on a sefer Torah. The Rambam was asked if it was permitted for Kohanim to bless the congregation with their backs to the Aron Kodesh. He permitted it even if the Aron Kodesh was open. This was due to the fact that the sifrei Torah were raised more than 10 tefachim from the ground. That itself is a sign of respect and dignity. It is a widespread minhag that Kohanim recite Birkas Kohanim with their backs to the Aron Kodesh.
The Taz likewise permits rabbanim to deliver their sermons with their backs to the Aron Kodesh. The basis for the leniency is the same. The Torah scrolls are generally kept over ten tefachim from the ground. This sign of great respect for the Torah is not negated by having a rav facing away from it. However, the Shaarei Efraim cautions one not to view this leniency as a carte blanche.
He writes (translated loosely): “It is permitted to deliver a derashah with one’s back to the Aron, as was explained, and so is the custom of many Gedolim, and the custom of the Jewish nation is considered Torah. Nevertheless . . . someone whose intention is only for self-glorification, by displaying his keen intellect and vast erudition, or whose intention is solely to receive compensation for his lectures, there is no doubt that he will surely be punished for behaving light-headedly toward something holy. Anyone who guards his soul will distance himself from such conduct.”
Thankfully, our rabbanim have the proper intentions in their derashos to increase mitzvah observance and to impart Hashem’s holy words to those assembled. Therefore, they may speak with their backs to the Aron Kodesh.
If a bar mitzvah bachur was looking for an excuse for not delivering his pshetl in shul, he may argue that he does not want to turn his back on the Aron Kodesh. The bar mitzvah boy can say that his intentions are not to increase Kavod Shamayim and therefore, according to the Shaarei Efraim, he should not turn his back on the Aron Kodesh.
The Chelkas Yaakov does entertain this argument as perhaps being reasonable, but concludes that we hope that the experience of giving the derashah will be seared in the young boy’s memory and encourage him to follow the proper path in life. This is so important that the bar mitzvah boy may deliver the derashah with his back to the Aron. The boy will instead have to feign sickness if he wants to get out of delivering his pshetl. v
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and is a rebbi at Mesivta Kesser Yisroel of Willowbrook. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.