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Torah with Morrie #9: Timeless Teachers

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Boruch Leff

Parents give physical life to a child; teachers inject that life with purpose and meaning.

Life goes by at a stunning pace, and the older we get, the faster it seems to fly. With all that goes on in our frenzied lives, we hardly have time for personal growth and character development.

"Mitch, the culture doesn't encourage you to think… until you're about to die. We're so wrapped up with egotistical things, career, family, having enough money, meeting the mortgage, getting a new car, fixing the radiator when it breaks -- we're involved in trillions of little acts just to keep going. So we don't get into the habit of standing back and looking at our lives and saying, 'Is this all? Is this all I want? Is something missing?' He paused.

'You need someone to probe you in that direction. It won't just happen automatically.'

I (Mitch) knew what he was saying. We all need teachers in our lives. And mine was sitting in front of me." (from "Tuesdays with Morrie")

Judaism views seeking a teacher as a fundamental tenet:

"Make a teacher for yourself" (Ethics of the Fathers 1:6).

One has an obligation to search for a teacher who will guide him on the true path. This is in contrast to the modern value of self-reliance. Sometimes people view seeking the counsel of others as a sign of weakness. 'Be a Man! All that matters is what you think!' society tells us. 'Don't let anyone else tell you what to do!'

But this is not the Jewish way. The Torah wants us to realize that our own judgment is often clouded and biased by self-interest and egotism. Only when we seek the advice of someone more objective and wise can we be assured that we are doing what is proper. This is why no matter how learned or how great or how mature a person is, one can never live a productive life on one's own.

A good teacher gives us insight into how to understand, analyze, derive, associate, differentiate, and apply. There are many examples in history of brilliant scholars who knew great amounts of Torah text but seriously distorted the Torah due to their lack of acceptance of a teacher from whom to learn.

This is why the Torah views learning from a teacher as so vital. It is tantamount to gaining a parent:

"These are the offspring of Aaron and Moses... These are the names of Aaron's sons..." (Numbers 3:1-2).

Rashi comments (loosely translated):

"It only mentions Aaron's sons (and not Moses'), yet it calls them the offspring of Moses. This is because Moses taught them Torah and whoever teaches Torah to another is considered as if he has fathered him."

Parents give physical life to a child but teachers inject that life with purpose and meaning. And being taught how to live a life with purpose and meaning is creating and fathering that life.

"Academic chairs are many, but wise and noble teachers are few."
-Albert Einstein

Perhaps more important than anything else, having a good teacher means gaining an entire worldview of wisdom and proper behavior. A supreme teacher looks at all aspects of life through the lens of the Torah and gives you a method of approaching all things and experiences. This is certainly true when you discuss specific issues with a Torah teacher, but it also applies even if you never had a chance to talk to him about a particular issue. The very fact that you are close to him changes the way you approach everything in life because you constantly think of what he might say in a given situation.

This is done consciously but at times may even occur unconsciously as your mind naturally adapts to trying to figure out what your teacher would maintain. Ultimately, the teacher wishes to produce students who don't need to ask him about every little issue because their mind has become attuned to what the Torah desires from a person. In this sense, the student takes his teacher with him wherever he goes.

Rav Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, had a student of whom he felt was ready to leave the yeshiva in order to teach after many years of study. Rav Yaakov was trying to impress upon the student that he should leave and reach out and teach the Jewish people. Every few days he would call the student into his office to discuss it. The student was not thrilled with Rav Yaakov's plans but found it difficult to express his reasons why.

Finally, Rav Yaakov pressed the student, "Don't you realize that you need to do it for the good of the Jewish people? We need Torah teachers to go out to small towns to help and inspire Jews!"

The student, with tears in his eyes, found the strength to finally say what he had wanted to say throughout these weeks. "I learn such an enormous amount from you each and every day that I can't bear to leave you!"

Rav Yaakov replied without batting an eyelash. "Don't you know that having a rabbi doesn't mean staying in close proximity to him your entire life? It means taking the rabbi, and his guidance and insight, with you wherever you go. Your entire life will be lived with your rabbi by your side. You will think of the wisdom he provided and utilize and apply it throughout your life. Having a rav means taking him with you!"

Later, the student testified that barely a day went by without his thinking of something he had learned from Rav Yaakov and applying it to his current situation.

Good teachers are hard to come by. It can often be difficult to find that one teacher who is worthy of our attention and respect. But we must never stop searching. For if we live life without teachers -- people who help us discover the profundity of who we are, we live without our true selves.


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