Asei Lecha Rav
by Jonathan Rosenblum
February 27, 2019
Asei Lecha Rav
Wednesday, February 27, 2019
ocieties are ever in flux. No society ever achieves a long-term equilibrium because the tensions driving societal change can never all be resolved at the same time. Rather they follow a certain pendular motion.
And that is as true of Torah society as any other. Rav Elya Brudny, one of the most active and accessible roshei yeshivah in the American yeshivah world today, made this point recently in a panel discussion with Rav Aaron Lopiansky at the White Shul in Far Rockaway, New York, on remaining bnei Torah in the workplace. After the Holocaust, he noted, there was a period of time when the gedolim directed every yeshivah student toward long-term Torah learning. Not to be in full-time learning was even viewed as a form of failure. "But as is always the case in history, there has been today a corrective [to that attitude]," Rav Brudny concluded.
Though change is a constant, the rate of change is not. Today, we are living in a period of rapid change, from which none are exempt. When I was growing up, white collar workers could expect to spend their entire working careers in one company or firm. Today's college graduates can expect to change jobs, and even careers, many times over their working lives. As a consequence, the most important skill to be garnered from formal education will often prove to be the ability to learn new things.
Chareidi society in both Israel and America is also undergoing rapid change, and, for bnei Torah, the ability to adapt to new situations will also be crucial. At the White Shul, Rav Brudny pointed to the ability to recognize each new situation as coming from Hashem as one of the hallmarks of a ben Torah. Rav Lopiansky added that one of the reasons that we stand for an elderly person is because of his life experience — i.e., the diversity of circumstances and situations in which he has been placed.
I will never forget a friend from my days in kollel who received a call one day from his wife's father informing him he had suffered a series of business reversals and could no longer afford to support my friend's family. That friend did not complain or whine that he had been counting on many more years of full-time learning. Rather he accepted the gezeirah, found a job as an executive director of a kollel, and moved with his family to America. His calm in the face of dramatically new circumstances left me in awe.
WHAT IS THE KEY to being able to make the necessary adjustments, while remaining a full ben Torah, in every sense? Chief among the necessary qualities is a deep knowledge of oneself. That knowledge is not, however, easily obtained. Knowing oneself was the primary goal of the mussar movement.
Learning how to think about oneself requires, first and foremost, a rav who can guide one in attaining self-knowledge, provide advice based on a close personal connection, and who can hold a mirror up to the talmid when need be.
Just as there is no perfect equilibrium for any society, so there is no path that is suited for every individual. Rav Lopiansky pointed out that his new sefer, Orchos Chaim: Ben Torah for Life, is a relatively short book because it deals only in general principles. But most answers depend on the specifics of each individual's situation, and no sefer can deal with all of the permutations. That is why one needs a rav.
Unfortunately, too many bochurim and kolleleit lack such a rav. In choosing a yeshivah, Rav Lopiansky suggested, the presence of a person who can serve as a image to which one can aspire and with whom the bochur can develop a relationship is crucial. Yet that consideration often takes a distant second place to the prestige of the yeshivah. And many bochurim find themselves at crucial stages in their lives in institutions that are so large that it is easy to fall between the cracks unnoticed.
At a late-night question-and-answer session with Rav Aharon Feldman at a convention of Agudath Israel of America many years ago, the constant refrain of the balabatim present was that their sons, now in their late twenties or early thirties, had no one to guide them and with whom they could discuss whether it was time to leave kollel.
I was reminded of that session by a story Rav Lopiansky told of an old Jew who remembered being taken to the Ohr Somayach — Rav Meir Simchah of Dvinsk — as a teenager. The boy's father was convinced that his son was a future gadol and sought the Ohr Somayach's confirmation. The Ohr Somayach spoke to the young man in learning, and afterward assured his father that he was indeed a fine bochur who should devote himself to learning for a few more years and then find a parnassah kalah v'nekiyah.
The father returned home with his son and cried for three days. The problem today, Rav Lopiansky commented, is that we don't have an Ohr Somayach to provide an honest evaluation. Nor do we have fathers who would cry three days over dashed hopes.
Ultimately, each person must decide for himself what to do. But the more advice from a wise person who knows one well, the better. Rav Lopiansky told the story of an extremely talented and dedicated talmid from a more modern background whose parents were pushing him to get an education in his mid-twenties. "I will hold your hand," Reb Aaron told him, "but you have to make the decision yourself." Today, Rav Lopiansky says that the title of "gaon" is no exaggeration applied to that talmid.
Among the questions to be asked is whether one has the requisite commitment to be a member of shevet Levi. One cannot have the best of all possible worlds. As the Ramban writes, the natural tendency of a person is to live k'minhago shel olam. To be a member of shevet Levi, one must choose to accept the burdens that entails.
In that vein, Rav Lopiansky shared a story of grandsons of Rav Aharon Kotler, who were eagerly planning to travel to Eretz Yisrael for a brother's chasunah, until their grandmother got wind of their plans. "Since when do yeshivahleit travel during the zeman?" she demanded to know.
My own understanding of the importance of a rav was brought home to me years ago in a casual conversation with a young man who grew up in my building. I once asked him how long he had been learning in the same yeshivah, and he told me six years.
"Don't you think it's about time to learn some place else?" I said to him, without any forethought or purpose. And even though his response made me feel like an idiot, the lesson that came with it made my embarrassment worth it.
"I guess you never met the Mashgiach, Rav Uri Weisblum," he said simply. Then I understood what it is to have a rav.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, Jewish Ethics, Social Issues
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