Question & Answer With Akiva Of Mystical Paths - "Aseh Lecha Rav"
A Simple Jew asks:
We are often exhorted "aseh lecha rav" (Pirkei Avos 1:6), yet finding a rabbi who is right for you is not as simple as walking into any shul and asking the rabbi to be your guide. How many rabbis did you go through before you found one that you could consider to be "your rabbi"? What characteristics did this rabbi possess that you felt were lacking in the other rabbis?
Akiva of Mystical Paths answers:
The pasuk doesn't say "ask a rabbi to be your guide", it says "make for yourself a rabbi". In other words, choose a rabbi and make him your rabbi!
Americans Jews have a problem with this. It is normal and natural that we pick up some of the character traits of the nations in which we (temporarily) reside. We all know the rumored habits of yekkes, Jews of German extraction, exactness and timeliness. Yet these are not "yekke" specific traits, these are German national traits. Similarly, Americans are independent, liberty loving, with limited respect for authority. American Jews carry these traits into the Jewish world.
Enhancing these traits are the types of political environments in which we live. The age of kings is past, the age of (apparent) individual rights is here. No authority figure in the Western world can summarily execute you, or pass instant judgment. We do not fear authority, and we barely respect it (if at all).
Giving a rav authority in your life conflicts with Western society cultural traits. That's our first problem to overcome. We must actually respect someone that we believe, due to Torah influence and study, has wisdom and insight exceeding our own. Respect doesn't mean we'll consider his wise thoughts. Respect means we recognize he's the expert, and we're going to take his advice OVER our own.
So how does one "make for yourself a rabbi". In the Jewish town of Elon Moreh (in the Shomron, West Bank), a decade ago the town had no town rabbi. They did have a yeshiva, which was kind of separate from the community, and it had a rabbi that they very much respected and wanted to become the town rabbi. A delegation of men was selected to approach and ask him, which they did. The first time, he said no. They approached again, and again he said no. They approached a third time, and he explained that he would not become the town rabbi just to give the people a rabbi with whom to disagree, and again said no.
The delegation took this back to the whole congregation, who agreed to respect the rabbi's rulings and abide by his positions. They then went, THE WHOLE CONGREGATION (the men), came to the rabbi's home and sat down in his living room (and front step, and walkway, etc.) When he arrived home, they informed him that they were making him their rabbi, and would not move from his home until he accepted the position. They told him they committed themselves to accepting his rulings and positions for the community.
He did relent, and did agree. He is the rabbi of the town to this day.
Our second problem to overcome is one of ego. It's one thing to ask a rav a life question, it's another to actually accept and implement the response. Whether this be the response of a rav or direction from a tzaddik or rebbe, often we go looking for confirmation of our thinking, not for an actual answer (whether it be one that conflicts with our preferred choice or sends us a different way).
A number of years ago I approached the senior Chabad rav of our town at the time, and informed him (yes, informed him) that I was making him my rav. He took this declaration very seriously, and was surprisingly available for the questions that come up in life. About two years later, there was a serious family incident that occurred, and my wife and I were on absolutely opposite sides of the issue. It was a terrible disagreement, and a terrible issue. We were at our worst, and there was no doubt (in my mind at least) that I was 100% on the right side. My wife was wrong, this situation had been building, it hadn't been dealt with properly in the past, no more compromise was the least bit reasonable. I was firm.
My wife told me I was being 100% unreasonable, I told her that the situation was 100% unreasonable and her position matched it. Finally she said, "I'm calling the rav!". "Fine," I responded, "go call him and find out how wrong your position is!"
Our rav took the call and received a brief over the phone. Hearing the seriousness, he actually came over to deal with it face to face. He listened intently as I described the whole sordid situation in full detail. He then requested my silence so he could hear my wife's ridiculous inappropriate position. He had to make that request more than a few times as she gave over her details.
After she finished, he asked some poignant questions to each of us. He thought for a few minutes and then took me outside. He told me, "You're absolutely correct that the situation should not have gotten to this point and was not dealt with reasonably in the past. But, you're absolutely wrong now, you're wife's demand is correct, you must permit and support her response."
I was flabbergasted. My rav had told me I was wrong, absolutely wrong. And I had to permit and even support an action with which I completely disagreed.
And, gritting my teeth, I did. Because I made him my rav. And that means accepting his insight and direction, and setting my own aside. And doing that is sometimes one of the hardest things a person can do.
You started with a few questions that, after those stories, I'm forced to address in brief:
I did not go through rabbonim, as you asked "How many rabbis did you go through before you found one that you could consider to be "your rabbi"?" Rather, I did not make a rav my rav until I found one who fit my needs and expectations at that stage and time of my life. I have had 4 rav's in my life, somewhat corresponding to physical moves and significant changes in spiritual levels. There have been other rabbaim that I have used for specific types of halachic queries in their areas of expertise (kashrus, taharat hamishpacha, etc).
"What characteristics did this rabbi possess that you felt were lacking in the other rabbis?" Before making for myself a rav, I've watched how he acts, how the community respects him and how he respects people. His honesty, integrity, and ego. His ahavat yisroel, but also his geverah. I'll give two brief stories from different rabbaim of mine that illustrate:
I used to attend the Sunday morning minyan of my rav consistently. But, while he gave a great shiur immediately afterwards, I wanted to head out and make the best of my Sunday (fun yes, Torah, in it's proper time). So, right as davening ended, I'd strip off my tallis and tefilin, pack up and try to quietly move out the entrance (so as not to disturb anyone extending their tefilot). But, my rav was having none of this. He'd watch from the front of shul for the younger men trying to slip out, and he'd shout "Akiva, where are you going?" Put on the spot, of course I responded "Umm, to the payphone to tell my wife I'm staying for the shiur?" "Good." he'd respond.
Some might think that's not very nice, but he gained my respect and loving memory (as he's left this world) for knowing when to push, and when not to. (And the shiur really was very good.)
The second story is many years later. I did not live on the same side of town as my rav, and one year he invited me and my family for Yom Kippur. This was in Israel, where all activity stops for that holy day. The davening was special, as was being with my rav. However, over the yom tov his young son (perhaps 3 years old) became quite ill. He was running a high fever, it was rather worrisome. B"H, I had brought some children's Motrin with me (a good habit when my children were little, traveling with basic medicines). We kept him dosed through the yom tov, but as soon as it was over he wanted to take him to the doctor. Having a car (and he didn't), I offered to take them. Still in kittel, off we went. Being it was Yom Kippur, the health clinic wasn't open but would open 1 hour after the chag. We waited, the doctor saw his son and gave some appropriate prescriptions. We waited another 1/2 hour for the pharmacy to open.
We had left immediately at the end of davening, after all there was a health issue for a child. When we returned, the whole community was waiting in front of his house, still in kittel and tallis, 2 hours after the end of Yom Kippur, for him to return so they could perform Kiddush Levana as a community. He took his son upstairs, came down and joined the kehilah. We performed Kiddush Levana, and then everyone went off to break their fast.
A rav that engenders that kind of community response is one you want in your life. And may HaKodesh Baruch Hu bless us all to find such wonderful rabbaim to be a part of our lives.