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Where do I find a Rabbi?

By Rabbi Jonathan Tawil

Without a teacher, we don’t learn. If we don’t learn, we don’t grow. Teachers inspire us. They help us become our best selves. They mirror to us our potential. In fact, they show us what we can – or do – know.

We go through school and have our fair amount of likeable teachers. Yet as we grow older we realise how important it is to attach ourselves to real mentors, and people that not only inspire us, but will guide us along the path of life.

In Pirkei Avot (Ch 1:6) we read, the advice of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Perachya; “Make for yourself a teacher/Rabbi and acquire for yourself a friend, and judge each person favourably.”

Wise words of assistance that will help us throughout our life.

A Rabbi does not necessarily know everything. This is why Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Perachya tells us to “make” a Rabbi, and not to merely “have” one. Finding a Rabbi doesn’t necessarily come naturally. You may have to go out of your way to find (make) one. Or you may have found one who is good but limited in some way. Nevertheless, “make” him your Rabbi because you need someone who can guide you and give you perspective. Although he may be lacking in some way, he still has something you don’t: perspective on your problem. He is objective where you are subjective. And he has a combination of Torah knowledge and experience enough to lead you across the “very narrow bridge” of life.

At the end of Parshat Mishpatim, we read how Moshe set out towards Har Sinai to receive the Torah.

“Moshe and his aid Yehoshua set out. Moshe went up on G-d’s Mountain…” (24:12-14)

Rashi comments “I don’t know why Yehoshua is here, but maybe he is serving the role of “student who accompanies the teacher.”

Let’s take a deeper look at who Yehoshua was and why he merited being Moshe’s student.

Explaining Yehoshua’s sudden presence, the Ramban says he was one of the elders.

In Parshat Shlach Lecha the Torah lists out the names of the spies (Meraglim) who went to spy out the land of Israel. The Ramban there notes that the Torah does not list them in order of their tribes nor in order of their ages, but rather in order of their greatness. Yehoshua is listed as number five, meaning that there were four other Meraglim greater than him.

If so why was Yehoshua the one chosen to lead Klal Yisrael after Moshe, why not one of the other Meraglim who were listed as being greater than Yehoshua?

To understand this, we come back to our Parasha.

Yehoshua was known as the “aid” or student of Moshe. He followed Moshe, his teacher and Rabbi all the way to Har Sinai until they arrived at the bottom of the mountain where Yehoshua was no longer allowed to accompany Moshe any further. At this point Moshe ascended the mountain to Hashem for forty days where he would learn the entire Torah and prepare himself to give it over to Klal Yisrael.

Yehoshua knew that Moshe would be forty days, nevertheless, rather than return to the camp, he pitched his tent at the bottom of the mountain and waited there for forty days.

As far as Yehoshua was concerned, the Torah was his number one priority, it was so important to him and he wanted it so much, he was afraid that if he would return to the camp and his day to day routine and then go back to greet Moshe at the end of the 40 days, perhaps he would get held up or delayed. He could possibly miss the first minute of his Kabalat Hatorah, and it wasn’t worth taking the risk. For this reason Yehoshua decided not to return to his family but rather pitch his tent at the bottom of the mountain, this way being guaranteed to be present to be the first to receive the Torah from his mentor Moshe.

In fact when Moshe eventually emerged (Ch 32) the first person he met was Yehoshua!

That is a real student, someone thirsty to learn from his teacher, someone who appreciates what is being taught.

But what about us, are we expected to be on that level? How can we achieve the ability of “Making ourselves a Rabbi”.

Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, zt”l, points out that the total period of time during which Yehoshua served and learned from Moshe was actually quite short.

The Mishnah in Eduyot (2:10) teaches that the entire punishment and judgment of the Egyptians spanned a period of 12 months, prior to which Moshe was living in Midian, and the Torah was given only seven weeks after the Exodus. At this point, Yehoshua had known Moshe for at most a little more than one year, yet he was already considered Moshe’s primary disciple. Rabbi Shteinman suggests that this teaches us that the depth of the connection between a Rabbi and his student is not a function of the amount of time that they spend together, but rather of the student’s dedication and commitment to learn from his Rabbi and emulate his ways.

Similarly, Rabbi Chaim Vital is considered the primary disciple of the Arizal, and most of the reliable teachings of the Arizal that we have today are found in the writings of Rabbi Chaim Vital. However, they spent only 20 months together before the Arizal tragically passed away at the age of 38. Nevertheless, Rabbi Chaim Vital was so devoted to his Rabbi that this short period of time was sufficient for him to imbibe the Arizal’s wisdom and preserve it for future generations, as the depth of the relationship is far more important than its length.

The best type of Rabbi is a mentor who can turn you into a mentor yourself, teaching you to think for yourself — with perspective.

If we change the inflection of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot slightly then Yehoshua ben Perachiya’s aphorism can read: Asei lach rav — “Make yourself into a Rabbi,” i.e. your Rabbi should be someone who helps you to grow into a person who can be a Rabbi/mentor/teacher to others. That’s a real mentor. That was the relationship between our leader Moshe and his eventual successor Yehoshua.

We might think that becoming a student or acquiring a Rabbi is a lifetime endeavour. However from the Torah it is clear, what makes a person in to your Rabbi doesn’t have to take years, it depends on your seriousness and commitment. If you are committed like Yehoshua, and show your desire, this can be achieved in a relatively short time. Of course you will need to keep up the connection, but “making” the Rabbi, the initial step, doesn’t have to be so daunting. Having a Rabbi will lead to disseminating any doubt, guidance for life and will help you build a rich Jewish connection. So what are you waiting for, make yourself a Rabbi!

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