Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Sublime Relationship Between a Rov and His Kehillah

For several reasons, I’ve been thinking lately about the relationship between a rov and his kehillah. First of all, last week my shul kindly decided to honor my rebbetzin and me at our annual dinner. Secondly, a few days later, I had the pleasure to be the guest speaker at the melava malka of a prominent shul in Flatbush whose rov was celebrating his 32nd year with the congregation. All of this led me to consider the intricate affinity and often fragile dynamics between these two. What, in fact, does a rov owe his kehillah and vice versa? What does each seek from the other? How can this liaison be strengthened and improved?

I would like to share a few ideas that I offered to my own shul and that of my colleague which impact upon us all, rabbi and congregant.

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, the longtime distinguished spiritual leader of Atlanta, Georgia, was awakened at 3 a.m. by a congregant in distress. She relayed to the rabbi that her husband’s close relative had just passed away in Israel. The levayah was to take place there shortly, but half the family was going to sit shivah in Eretz Yisroel and half in Atlanta. The woman was seeking guidance for her husband’s aveilus. Where should he establish his house of mourning?

As the rov emerged from his sleepy stupor, he inquired sympathetically but in a puzzled tone, “Well, what would your husband like to do?” To which the woman responded, sounding somewhat offended, “Why, rabbi,” she protested, “it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. I can’t wake him at this hour!”

Not to beat a story to death, the classic anecdote succinctly sums up our query. On the one hand, the rov is expected to exist on a higher level than his congregants and yet is sometimes treated on a lower level than any of them.

My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, who was well-known to insist on a lofty level of kavod haTorah – honor given to those who represent the Torah – also taught that a rebbi owes his students a high standard of gratitude. Making the assumption here that a rov is in fact a rebbi to his congregants, his titular talmidim, the following formula is somewhat surprising: “What a tremendous amount of hakoras hatov a rebbi must feel toward his students” (Pachad Yitzchok, Sefer Hazikaron, page 109). Rav Hutner pointed out that since a teacher gains more from his students than they do from him, he must recognize this with gratitude. On the other hand, he goes on to assert that “a talmid does not become a student because he recognizes the rebbi’s greatness. He recognizes the rebbi’s greatness because he is a student. Now, if so, then upon what basis did he become a talmid of this rebbi in the first place? The answer is because of the power of taanug (the delight) that he takes in his rebbi.”

Rav Hutner saw this sublime definition of the rebbitalmid relationship as reflecting a pivotal conversation between a paradigmatic rebbitalmid. Elisha is running toward Eliyahu Hanovi, yearning to join him as a talmid muvhak, establishing a formal relationship as a student. However, Eliyahu seems to reject him, declaring, “Leich shuv ki meh asisi lecha – Go return, for what have I done for you?” (Melachim I 19:20). To this pivotal question, Elisha has no response, despite the fact that his entire existence seems to hinge upon the answer. The reason, Rav Hutner tells us, is that there can be no verbal explanation for the desire to be someone’s talmid. It is ineffable and beyond mere words. It is simply a reality, a force of nature.

So it would appear that, at least on one level, a rebbi is so beyond his talmidim as to be totally independent of them. However, we find that his own spiritual attainments flow directly from them as well.

The Sefas Emes (Parshas Zachor 5650) writes of the greatest rebbi of all, “Although Moshe Rabbeinu was the savior of [Klal] Yisroel, everything was dependent upon their spiritual achievements.”

The Kli Yokor (Vayikra 16:2) too, writes that “when Klal Yisroel has not merited this achievement, even the kohein gadol cannot perceive the Face of the Shechinah.”

The Slonimer Rebbe (Nesivos Shalom, Vayikra, page 75) adds that “even the greatest of the great requires the power of Klal Yisroel behind him. The kohein gadol cannot enter the Holy of Holies without his connection to the nation.”

We see, therefore, that the rov and kehillah connection is far from one-sided. Each has something to offer, the gains are symbiotic, yet the rebbi always remains on the pedestal of being the Moshe Rabbeinu of our generation and our personal conduit to receiving and accepting the Torah.

In this time, so close to Purim, one must also mention the somewhat tenuous aspect of the rebbi’s position as arbitrator of what is right and the one responsible to give chastisement and mussar.

The end of the Megillah records that “Mordechai was ratzuy lerov echav – found favor with the multitude of his brethren.” However, Chazal (Megillah 16b) read the word lerov literally as “the majority, but not to all his brethren.” The Alter of Kelm (quoted in Ohel Moshe, Purim, page 522, note 238) explains that Mordechai, being the ish emes that he was – that he had to be – could not be popular with everyone, since sometimes he had to criticize someone or side with one party or the other. Apparently, being a true leader creates the inevitability of some antagonism and dissatisfaction. This, too, creates some distance between the rov, who must be both objective and candid, and the talmid, who sometimes just looks for justification and vindication.

Despite this seeming danger zone for a rov who maintains a strong sense of integrity, there is a silver lining to his constantly remembering his mission in life.

The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 36:3) compares Noach and Moshe Rabbeinu: “Moshe Rabbeinu was more beloved than Noach, for Noach went from being described as ish tzaddik to being called ish ha’adamah. However, Moshe Rabbeinu was elevated from being referred to as an ish Mitzri to the appellation ish ha’Elokim.”

The Meshech Chochmah (Bereishis 9:20) explains this analogy in a way that impacts profoundly upon the life of a rov: “There are two approaches to serving Hashem. One refers to a person who closets himself, growing spiritually in his solitude. The other interacts totally with the community, subjugating himself to their needs and neglecting his own for their sake. One would think logically that the one who spends all of his time perfecting himself would grow to a much greater degree than the one who is busy with the needs of society. However, we see from this Medrash that Noach, who did not admonish his generation, eventually fell from his greatness, becoming known as a man of the earth. On the other hand, Moshe Rabbeinu, who immersed himself completely in the problems of his generation, was universally called the holy man of G-d.

We should add that although Mordechai and others did perhaps not achieve universal acclaim, they succeeded in saving their nation. The rov does not run a popularity contest, only a race to see how many people he can uplift and inspire. It is his wish to make everyone happy, but it his goal to change them for their own good. When he does this, he benefits as much as they do, as we saw from the words of the Sefas Emes, Kli Yokor and Nesivos Shalom.

Whether we are rabbeim or talmidim, and we are all often both, may we remember our obligations in each of the roles we play, which is ultimately to bring about a kiddush Hashem wherever we go.


Written on 28 Shevat, 5778, the 40th yahrtzeit of my beloved mother, Faiga bas Reb Shlomo Yaakov z”l.



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