The Rewards of Having a Rabbi

June 24, 2009

8 min read


Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20 )

John and David were researching a Talmudic passage.

"Come on, Dave", John urged. "The paper's due tomorrow and it's already 10:00 PM. Let's just move on. We don't need to ask a rabbi. We already know what it says - the Artscroll translation of the Talmud is known to be excellent."

Dave wasn't satisfied. "Sorry, John. I just think we need some guidance and perspective that only a rabbi can offer."

John reluctantly agreed. "Fine, have it your way. But you're staying up until 4:00 AM typing, not me!"

Who's right? Our Torah portion, Bamidbar will give us an answer.

"These are the offspring of Ahron and Moshe ... These are the names of Ahron's sons..." (Bamidbar 3:1-2).

Rashi (3:1) comments (loosely translated): "It only mentions Ahron's sons (and not Moshe's), yet it calls them the offspring of Moshe. This is because Moshe taught them Torah and whoever teaches Torah to another is considered as if he has fathered him."

Commentaries ask: we know that Moshe taught Torah to the entire Jewish people. There are numerous verses of the Bible and passages of Talmud that state this. (See Eruvin 54b for starters.) Why then only regarding Ahron's sons is it said that Moshe is considered their father? Shouldn't Moshe be called the father of the entire nation of Israel?

One answer to this quandary is that Rashi's statement does not apply to any standard rabbi, or person that teaches Torah. It is true that we should deem any person that we learn even one thing from, "our rabbi," as King David did (see Pirkei Avot 6:3), but only a rabbi that personally guides me in my studies and instills within me a totality of style of learning and thought process can be regarded as one who "has fathered me."

This type of rabbi is known as my "Rav Muvhak," my "Distinct Rabbi" and has given me "most of my wisdom" and has "established me with truth and straightness" (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 242:30). One tears his garment upon hearing of the death of his Rav Muvhak, just as one does at a father's passing. This Rav Muvhak concept is the true meaning of Pirkei Avot 1:6, "Make a rabbi for yourself."

Moshe was a Rav Muvhak to Ahron's sons but not to the entire Jewish nation. Moshe indeed taught Torah to everyone but it was only a privileged few that were actually able to call Moshe their "Distinct Rav."

What is the status of "Rav Muvhak" nowadays when we have virtually everything in translation? Do we still need to have a rabbi? Sure, back then it was important to have a rabbi because most of Torah was oral. But now that all of the Oral law has been codified and written down, and even more so now that it's all translated, do we still need to seek out a rabbi?

A section in the Talmud Kiddushin 66a (paraphrased loosely) screams an emphatic yes!:

King Yanai (circa 100 BCE),originally a supporter of the Talmudic Sages, desired to be High Priest as well. The Sages considered him unfit due to questionable lineage. Yanai had invited the Sages to a grand feast to celebrate his military victories. An enemy of the Sages, Elazar ben Poera, wanted to cause a clash between Yanai and the Sages and advised Yanai to appear before the Sages wearing the golden headband of the High Priest. One of the Sages protested saying, "King Yanai, the crown of kingdom is enough for you! Leave the crown of priesthood to the true descendants of Ahron!"

Yanai became infuriated. Eventually Elazar ben Poera prevailed upon Yanai to kill all of the Sages.

Yanai had one problem though. "What will be with the Torah? The Sages are needed in order to know the Torah. How will Torah survive?" Yanai worried.

"No problem," said Elazar, "The Sefer (Book) Torah is right there, wrapped in the corner. Anyone that wants to come and learn it can feel free to do so!"

Yanai accepted the plan. Right then, Yanai became a heretic because he denied the importance of the Oral Law. (Looking into a Sefer Torah would only grant someone knowledge of the Written Law.)

It is quite clear from this passage that in order to study Torah properly, we need a rabbi, even if all of the Oral Torah were written down, and even when translation is available. When Yanai expresses concern over the loss of the Torah, he is told not to worry since it is written down. Yanai knew that Torah could not survive without an Oral Torah explaining the Written Torah. There are numerous phrases and verses that are impossible to understand without the oral tradition as to their meaning. So he must have had in mind that before the Sages would be killed, he would force them to write down the entire oral law.

Still, the Talmud says that such a suggestion to write down the Oral Torah and rely on a text without the input and perspective of live teachers and Rabbis was tantamount to heresy.

Without a living and dynamic learning process, from one generation to the next, the Torah would inevitably become distorted. A live, present, and available rabbi is vital to understanding any section of Torah properly. This was true in 0002 CE (before the Oral law was written down) and is true in 2002 CE.

A rabbi gives us insight into how to utilize the words of the text and/or translation. He tells us how to understand, analyze, make it practical, derive, associate, and differentiate. 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 rabbi from whom to learn.

Perhaps more important than anything else, having a rabbi means gaining an entire worldview of wisdom and proper behavior. A rabbi 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 issues with a rabbi, 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 a rabbi changes the way you approach everything because you constantly think of what your rabbi 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 rabbi would maintain. Ultimately the rabbi wants to produce students who don't need to ask him about every little issue because their mind has become attuned to what the Torah (through the outlook of the rabbi) desires from a person. In this sense, the student takes his rabbi with him/her wherever he/she 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 do outreach. 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. "Rav", he said, "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 Rav doesn't mean staying close to the Rav your entire life? It means taking the Rav and his guidance and insight with you wherever you go. Your entire life will be lived with your Rav 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 a day never went by without his thinking of something he had learned from Rav Yaakov and applying it to his current situation.

We all must learn Torah well but we must also make sure we find a rabbi and take that rabbi with us at all times.

After all, who doesn't want to walk around with a wise man in his back pocket?

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