Aseh Lecha Rav

There is a famous story told (Berachot 61b) of what happened when R’ Akiva was publicly executed by the Romans (after the Bar Kochba Revolt):

At the time when they [the Romans] took R’ Akiva to be killed, it was the time of reciting the Shma.  They were raking his flesh with iron combs, and he was accepting upon himself the yoke of Heaven [a euphemism for reciting the Shma].  His students said to him: To this extent [you are still able to concentrate on praying]?  He said to them: all the days of my life I was dismayed that I was not able to understand the verse [“and you shall love your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” [Devarim 6:5], what it referred to] when it said “all your soul.”  I understood it to mean that even if God were to take your soul [life] that you should love God.  But I wondered: ‘when will I have a chance to fulfill this commandment?’  Now that the opportunity to fulfill this commandment has come, will I not fulfill it [i.e. how could you ask how I can concentrate on my prayer]? (translation mine)

I do not want to imply for a second that I have experienced a similar revelation, but this story immediately came to mind after finding some understanding in my own life relating to fulfilling a rabbinic precept.  In Pirkei Avot 1:6 (often translated as ‘Ethics of our Fathers’), the Mishna states: “Aseh lecha rav, u’kneh lecha chaver, v’haveh dan et kol adam lekaf zechut” — “Make for yourself a Rav, and acquire for yourself a friend, and let it be such that you always judge each person according to their merits” (translation mine).  The first clause is traditionally taken to mean finding a rabbi (Rav being the Aramaic form of ‘rabbi’) that you can call your own, for both strictly legal and more personal problems that will arise in your life.  On this reading, this is a fairly common and not particularly interesting imperative for each and every one of us (I wish to include all people, and not just Jews, in this imperative).  Everyone needs a mentor, someone to turn to for physical, material, and moral guidance.  However, what has become clear to me recently is that the Mishna is asking for more than that.

The Rav referred to here is not simply a rabbinic figure, someone relatively easy to come by, but rather a true role model that is not a biblical ideal (as opposed to, say, having King David or Abraham as a role model), but a real live person whom one can have a human relationship with.  A person whom you respect tremendously, and who, in their own way and as appropriate, respects you in turn.  Someone who you can both see as a model to live by and as someone whom you can critique, and who feels equally comfortable doing the same for you.  This is a lofty ideal to reach, which, given the context of the first chapter of Pirkei Avot, fits perfectly with the other imperatives being discussed.

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