David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

True greatness is care for others: Parshat Emor

Edward Bok in Bok Tower Gardens. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Edward Bok in Bok Tower Gardens. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

The story of Edward Bok is a classic rags to riches story (at least as he told it in his autobiography, and I have no particular reason to doubt him). As a child, he would gather bits of coal he found on the New York curbs to help his penniless parents. When he died, he was buried in Bok Tower Gardens, a beautiful 100-hectare (250-acre) sanctuary in Florida which he created.

He, along with his parents and older brother, left the Netherlands for America, arriving in New York in 1870. Edward Bok was almost seven, and neither he, nor his eight-year-old brother William, spoke a word of English.

A few days after their arrival, the boys were sent to public school, where they did not understand what the teacher was saying, but well understood the taunts and petty bullying of their schoolmates. At least until Edward realized he had, in his own words, to become more American.

Edward Bok knew that while spoken languages might differ, there is one language understood by boys the world over. And with this language Edward decided to do some experimenting. After a few days at school, he cast his eyes over the group of his tormentors, picked out one who seemed to him the ringleader, and before the boy was aware of what had happened, Edward Bok was in the full swing of his first real experiment with Americanization.

Of course the American boy retaliated. But the boy from the Netherlands had not been born and brought up in the muscle-building air of the Dutch dikes for nothing, and after a few moments he found himself looking down on his tormentor and into the eyes of a crowd of very respectful boys and giggling girls who readily made a passageway for his brother and himself when they indicated a desire to leave the schoolyard and go home. Edward now felt that his Americanization had begun.

Bok earned his wealth and fame as the editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal, which at the time was the widest-read magazine in the world, with over two million subscribers.

Example of Spencerian script from 1884. (D.L. Musselman, Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

But, in his autobiography, “The Americanization of Edward Bok,” he recalled that he made his first mark on America when he was in his first year of school. At the time, the standard style for business correspondence was Spencerian script, and children would spend hours copying text in the beautiful, delicate, embroidered font with all its flourishes and embellishments. Bok decided that the simpler Italian handwriting would be more practical and efficient, and refused to practice his penmanship. However, he did not have enough English to explain the logic behind his stubbornness.

The teacher took him to the principal who beat his right hand with a cane, but Bok still refused to copy the Spencer script (of course, with his newly swollen hand it would have been nearly impossible anyway). The next day, his father came and spoke to the principal, explaining his son’s logic. And from that time forth, not only was he permitted to use the simpler style, but a short while later, after lobbying from the principal, all public-school pupils in New York were given the choice of which style to use.

Edward Bok, circa 1918. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Bok left school at the age of 13 to take up a position as an office boy at the Western Union Telegraph Company, where his father worked as a translator. Over the next several years he came up with one successful scheme after another – working as a lemonade salesman, writer, journalist, editor, all the while holding down a full-time job.

His father passed away when Edward was 18, and sitting next to his father’s empty desk was a constant cause of depression. The company’s lawyer, Clarence Cary, took him under his wing, promoting him to become the stenographer for the legal department. Bok remained close to Cary throughout his life, even naming his second son Cary, in his honor.

In 1882, aged only 19, Cary used his connections to get Bok a job with the publisher Henry Holt, and then two years later he joined Charles Scribner’s Sons publishing house (famous for publishing books by Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kurt Vonnegut, and many others). While working for Scribner’s, Bok partnered with a friend and founded The Brooklyn Magazine and served as its editor. In 1886, realizing he could make more money by selling his articles to many newspapers, he founded the Box Syndicate Press, the third such syndicate in the country. He had 137 newspapers printing columns and articles he commissioned and wrote.

Cyrus Curtis. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

In 1889, Bok moved to Philadelphia and on October 20 he became the editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal. The Journal was owned by Cyrus and Louisa Curtis, whose publishing empire included many newspapers and magazines. A few years later, Bok married the Curtis’s daughter Mary.

Under Bok, the Ladies’ Home Journal became the most-read magazine in the world, the first to have one million subscribers, eventually reaching more than two million homes.

Bok remained as editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal for 20 years, until his retirement in 1919. In that role, he mixed with the elite of American society, and made a lot of money. But he also took his responsibility to help society very seriously.

He recounted that once President Theodore Roosevelt told him, “You are in a peculiar position. You are in that happy position where you can make money and do good at the same time. A man wields a tremendous power for good or for evil who is welcomed into a million homes and read with confidence.”

Under Bok, in 1892, the Ladies’ Home Journal became one of the first to refuse to advertise patent medicine on the grounds that most such potions had no health benefit – on the contrary, some were actually dangerous.

Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

He also attacked some of the more famous patent medicines. He showed an advertisement for Lydia Pinkham’s vegetable compound with a picture of a woman in a laboratory and the accompanying text, “”Mrs. Pinkham, in her laboratory at Lynn, Massachusetts, is able to do more for the ailing women of America than the family physician. Any woman, therefore, is responsible for her own suffering who will not take the trouble to write to Mrs. Pinkham for advice.” Next to this he printed a photograph of Pinkham’s grave, showing that she had passed away 22 years previously.

Bok’s journal showed that, despite claims to the contrary, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup contained morphine. Ultimately, Bok’s advocacy was one of the factors that led to the establishment of the precursor to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Bok also commissioned articles about venereal disease, reasoning that information and education on the subject would save lives. “The root of the evil lay in the reticence of parents with children as to the mystery of life; boys and girls were going out into the world blindfolded as to any knowledge of their physical selves,” Bok wrote in his autobiography. “And so, in 1906, with the subject absolutely prohibited in every periodical and newspaper of standing, never discussed at a public gathering save at medical meetings, Bok published his first editorial.”

Despite thousands of protest letters, cancelled subscriptions and loss of advertising revenue, Bok persisted and eventually changed public opinion, opening up the topic of sexual health for discussion.

He also advocated against the use of public drinking cups, which spread germs and disease. Within six months, legislation was introduced across the country requiring that shared cups be replaced with single-use paper cups, thus saving untold lives.

He pushed to ban or restrict the use of fireworks to prevent injury and death. He helped found The Child Federation devoted to the welfare of babies and children. He led campaigns to provide better police protection, improved fire brigades and supervision of water and milk quality.

Stanford White, ca. 1892. Photograph by George Cox. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

He published architectural plans in the Journal to make it possible for his readers, “to secure, at moderate cost,” plans for well-designed houses by some of the foremost architects in the country. Each house could be built for between $1,500 and $5,000. His blueprints included adequate ventilation and larger rooms for servants. He also abolished the parlor, which he considered a useless room, substituting it in his plans with a living room or a library. Thousands of homes across the country were built using the designs published in Ladies’ Home Journal.

One of the foremost architects of the time, Stanford White, wrote:

I believe that Edward Bok has more completely influenced American domestic architecture for the better than any man in this generation. When he began … I refused to cooperate with him. If Bok would come to me now, I would not only make plans for him, but I would waive my fee for them in retribution for my early mistake.

Along similar lines, President Theodore Roosevelt said:

[He] is the only man I ever heard of who changed, for the better, the architecture of an entire nation, and he did it so quickly and effectively that we didn’t know it was begun before it was finished.

One area in which he was out of step with modern thinking was his opposition to feminism. He came out strongly against giving women the vote. He felt that, “American women were not ready to exercise the privilege intelligently and that their mental attitude was against it.”

National Historic Landmark plaque. (CC BY-SA,traveljunction/ WIkimedia Commons)

After his retirement, Edward and Mary Bok established the American Peace Award, given for the “best practicable plan for US cooperation in world peace.” They founded the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. And they built Bok Tower Gardens, a contemplative garden and bird sanctuary, which was dedicated in 1929 by President Calvin Coolidge.

The Singing Tower, Bok Tower Gardens. (CC BY-SA, There&Back/ Wikimedia Commons)

Bok died of a heart attack on January 9, 1930, and was buried at the base of the Singing Tower in Bok Tower Gardens.

Throughout his life, it was Bok’s commitment to his education that drove him. Although he left school at 13, he never ceased learning. One of the first things he bought with earnings was Appleton’s Encyclopedia. He wanted to learn what made men such as William Vanderbilt, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Edison so successful. As he read about them in his encyclopedia, he was filled with questions.

He was particularly fascinated by great people who had come from modest beginnings like his own. He wondered whether it was true that General James Garfield – soon to become president – “had once been a boy on the tow-path.” So, he wrote a letter to Garfield, asking if it was true and explaining why he was interested. And Garfield answered him in a letter.

Bok then embarked on a letter-writing campaign, asking questions of some of the most famous people of the time. And they answered him.

Thus General Grant sketched on an improvised map the exact spot where General Lee surrendered to him; Longfellow told him how he came to write ‘Excelsior’; Whittier told the story of ‘The Barefoot Boy’; Tennyson wrote out a stanza or two of ‘The Brook,’ upon condition that Edward would not again use the word “awful,” which the poet said “is slang for ‘very,'” and “I hate slang.”

Eventually, he took to reading the “distinguished arrivals” column in the newspaper, and when one of his letter writers arrived in New York, he would visit them in their hotel. In that way he came to meet President Garfield, General Grant, General Sherman and President Hayes, and many others.

Portrait of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

One summer, when he was 19, Bok headed up to Boston to meet with some of his heroes. He sent a note to Oliver Wendell Holmes, who invited him for breakfast. Then he went to visit Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who fed him dinner and took him to the theater. The next day he called on Phillips Brooks, and, accompanied by Louisa May Alcott, visited an ailing Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The teenage Bok appreciated the time that these distinguished people gave him. They taught him that however great or important someone is, by virtue of their position or talents, there was always time to write or speak to someone as unimportant as a poor, immigrant, teenage boy. This was a lesson he remembered for the rest of his life. His desire to help others through his editorials came from the kindness he was shown by those great people.

In this week’s Torah portion of Emor, we learn of the rules and restrictions governing the personal lives of the priests and especially the High Priest. Priests are restricted in who they may marry and limited in their contact with the dead. A priest who was impure could not eat sacrifices, nor could he share his sacrificial food with non-priests.

All these restrictions set the priests apart from the rest of Israelite society. It would have been easy for the priests to have considered themselves better than all the other people. In fact, this was ultimately what happened with the most famous priestly family – the Hasmoneans – who ruled the nation after the events of the Hanukah story, and ultimately their “holier than thou” attitude led to them inviting the Roman generals to conquer Jerusalem. The Sadducees, whose sense of self importance led to the disunity which caused the destruction of the Second Temple, were predominantly from the priestly class.

However, this is not what the Torah envisages for the priests. Although their role requires them to be somewhat separated from the rest of the nation, they are not to consider themselves better than others or too important to care about the Israelites.

Their tribe was the only one that had no portion of land in Israel. While all the other Israelites were settled in their homes and their fields, the priests were forced to become the equivalent of itinerant preachers, going from one place to another, lining up to collect the tithes and other offerings they were given by the regular people.

In their role as sacrificers, they had to represent the people to God. They could not do this if they considered themselves apart from the people. They had to identify with and care about the rest of the nation.

This is the reason that someone who commits manslaughter is released from the city of refuge upon the death of the high priest. Accidental killing is a reflection that the high priest is not doing his job properly. The knowledge that those exiled to a city of refuge would benefit from his death forced the high priest and his family to show extra kindness to the people, to demonstrate his care and concern for his people so that they would pray for him to live a long and successful life.

The verse in Malachi (2:7) states, “For the lips of the priest keep knowledge and they should seek Torah from his mouth, for he is an angel of God.” As a teacher of Torah, he is like an angel, different from everyone else, but only if he allows people to come and seek that Torah from him.

And without that Torah, his position and aloofness mean nothing. The Mishna in Horayot (3:8) states, “Even a learned mamzer takes priority over an ignorant high priest.”

The paradigm of the ideal priest was Aharon. He is characterized by his “love of peace, pursuit of peace, love of people and bringing them close to Torah,” (Avot 1:12).

Rashi explains (in his commentary on Numbers 20:29) that the people mourned Aharon’s death because he had pursued peace and brought love between disputants, and between husbands and wives.

Despite his lofty status and the restrictions keeping him from participating in certain activities with the rest of the nation, Aharon’s care and concern for every individual, regardless of their status, is what caused him to be loved by all.

I recently wrote about the belief that kings can cure scrofula. This led to many monarchs caring for their subjects and interacting with them personally. A nation proclaims “God save the king” only because a king cares about his people.

Presidents, kings, and priests have a duty and responsibility to change the lives of their people. They are chosen for a task that sets them apart from others. Yet they can only succeed by showing their love for their people through their words and deeds, and seeing that reciprocated by the nation.

The next class in my series on WebYeshiva will begin on May 9nd and is entitled “The Inner Meaning of Sefirat HaOmer.” You can sign up on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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