Sunday, January 31, 2010

Aseh Lecha Rav: Vus Meint a Rebbe?


In Pirkei Avos, R' Yehoshua Ben Perachia says the famous line, "aseh lecha rav" ("Make a teacher for yourself"). This line forms a strong part of Jewish life, as each Jew is required to accept the authority and guidance of a particular rav/rabbi. In doing this, the individual connects himself to the long line of Torah, all the way back to Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) himself. The Rambam and Rav Chaim Volozhiner are both of the opinion that one should accept a rav even if the only rav available is less learned than the student accepting this rav. Each group within Orthodoxy has a different approach to the concept of having a personal rav, with Chasidism accomplishing this through the rav/rebbe balance.

Throughout the development and lifetime of Chasidic Judaism, Chasidim have been led by a manhig (leader) who traces his leadership back to talmidim (students) of the Baal Shem Tov, who established the Chasidic movement. Early on in the history of Chasidism, the Chasidic rabbi of each town became the "rebbe" (spiritual teacher) of the particular Chasidim in his town, and the position of rebbe would then be passed on to his nearest available male heir upon his death. For those people who attached themselves to the Chasidic movement in general, and a particular style of Chasidism through a particular rebbe, their leader was determined by heredity. Eventually, as certain Chasidic leaders grew in popularity, people living far away from a rebbe began to become his Chasidim. As this happened, they would still look to the rebbe for spiritual inspiration, but would have a secondary person nearby to serve their immediate needs and questions, and to give general guidance: the rav. Today, as many Chasidic groups are rather large, giving the individual person little connection to his rebbe, and a few Chasidic groups no longer have a living rebbe, the role of a personal rav has become even more central to Chasidic life. A rebbe today is a tzadik (intensely righteous person) upon whose wings you fly spiritually, through inspiration, and a rav is the everyday person who takes a personal role in your life, being able to give you guidance in particular areas of difficulty.

While this has become the general picture of what a rebbe does in the lives of Chasidic Jews, this has not been the case with all forms of Chasidism. Because most of the rebbes and Chasidim who survived the war were from Hungary and Galiczia (southeastern Poland/western Ukraine), this has become the idea of what the word "rebbe" means. However, Chasidic groups that grew out of the teachings of the rebbes of Peshis'cha (mostly form central Poland) have an altogether different view of a rebbe.


The Peshis'cha Chasidic philosophy began with the Holy Jew (Reb Yaakov Yitzchok Rabinowitz), a student of the Chozeh (Seer) of Lublin. The Chozeh of Lublin was known for his complete humility, constantly requesting that his thousands of Chasidim not follow him as he was not worthy to have such followers, which actually drew more and more people to follow him. His student the Holy Jew, dedicated to the Chozeh's teachings of humility and simplicity, was succeeded by his student Reb Simcha Bunim ztvk"l. Reb Simcha Bunim was the rebbe that popularized what has become the Peshis'cha philosophy of Chasidism. His teachings, which drew much criticism from other Chasidic leaders of the time, emphasized personal individuality over blindly following a rebbe, as each person has unique needs and is given a unique task in this world. He added this to the Holy Jew's important value of knowing oneself, and only being able to contemplate the greater world through intellect and understanding gained through deep personal introspection. For Reb Simcha Bunim, a rebbe should be someone who has discovered the tzadik within themselves, and works to help his followers discover the tzadik within themselves, always within the framework of non-conformist mentoring. Within his understanding of Chasidus, one was meant to do everything "lifnim mishiris hadin" (beyond what the law requires), and this applies to oneself as well. The rebbe said that just as one is forbidden by the Torah from deceiving a fellow person, a true Chusid is forbidden from deceiving himself.

An interesting story has been told regarding how Reb Simcha Bunim saw his role as a rebbe and manhig. Once, when a man came to Reb Simcha Bunim to join his Chasidim when the man's previous rebbe died, Reb Simcha Bunim asked how his previous rebbe had taught discipline and Chasidus to his followers. The man replied that his previous rebbe emphasized the ideals of humility and service by requiring any person wishing to meet with him to go to the village center, fill two buckets with water, and carry them back to the rebbe. Reb Simcha Bunim took issue with teaching each person such a value in the same way. He related a story to the man regarding his own ideas of what it means to be a rebbe. Reb Simcha Bunim said that there were once two wise men and a foolish man placed inside of a dark prison, where there were now windows and the roof was high above them. Each day, their captors would give them food and drink, but the intensity of the darkness confused the foolish man, and he was unable to discern what was a cup, what was a plate, and what was food. Therefore, he was unable to eat until one of the two wise men began to give him the food and drink so that he could fill himself. In exasperation, the first wise man asked the other, "Why do you sit there? While I help this man eat and drink, you do nothing to help him!" The second wise man replied, "You give him food and drink, but the cycle doesn't stop. Each day, you have to do it all over again, as nothing that you do changes the reality of the situation. I, however, am sitting here thinking of a way to make a hole in the roof, so that light will come in and he will be able to see everything!" For those of the Peshis'cha school of Chasidus, the role of a rebbe is not to give his Chasidim the ability to fly by attaching themselves to his wings, but by showing them how to use their own wings. To do so only based on other people's ability is a disaster.


Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the successor of Reb Simcha Bunim, carried on his rebbe's legacy and philosophy. He stressed the importance of each person looking within in order to understand themselves, and that each person should be able to seek out truth based on their own questions and needs. According to the Kotzker, people do not find the truth by imitating others, for this itself is untrue, in that it forces someone to conform to the "true being" of another person. This untruth of self, even if the path worked for the person that is being copied, does not lead to greater truth. A rebbe is then given the task of helping someone find their authentic self, however difficult and painful it may be, and then begin the process of refining the individual self through a unique path that works for the specific person. This goes along with an interesting reading of the initial statement, "aseh lecha rav," which can also mean, "make yourself into a rav." This is the essence of one of the Kotzker rebbe's most famous sayings: "If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. However, if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you." It is not our job to be Moshe Rabbeinu, or to be any other great leader, for they have their own time and place, and to copy them is to fail our own unique task and self. We were created with our own essence, in our place, in our time, to be the best "us" we can be, not the best "them" we can be.

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