Just a thought that I had on a Rashi from this week’s parshah.
Hashem appears to Yaakov and says to him, “I am the God of Yitzchak.”
Rashi finds this strange. Rashi knows of no other place in scripture where Hashem associates his name, the God of X, while the person is still alive. God only does that after the person has passed away.
This principle is based on a verse from the book of Job, “He
Yitzchak, says Rashi, was an exception. His blindness and his infirm condition had relegated him to one who no longer had free choice, since he was physically incapable of committing a sin. Therefore God could confidently say that He was the God of Yitzchak.
Rashi is clearly teaching us a lesson here. There is a danger in associating your name with someone because if that person subsequently is involved in a scandal then your name will be associated with the scandal as well.
This is particularly applicable in the aftermath of Rabbi scandals. And it has a long history. Rabbi Meir of the Mishnah was a loyal student of Rabbi Elisha Ben Abuyah. When Elisha ben Abuyah became a heretic it tainted Rabbi Meir’s reputation. After the scandal Rabbi Meir’s name was stricken from many records and he is known in those instances as “acheirim” as in, some other guy.
I struggle with this idea. Today in Daf Yomi, Sotah page 22, there was a section about the importance of servicing Torah scholars. The Gemara says elsewhere that it is not enough to just learn from Rabbis, it is important to service them. Elijah the prophets main student was Elisha. He was not known as having “learned” from Elijah, but he was the one who “poured water on Elijah’s hands.” Joshua had a similar relationship with Moshe.
We are told that we are supposed to cleave to Torah scholars and that doing so is like cleaving to God himself. Of Torah scholars we instructed to “sit in the dust at their feet.”
Traditionally it was considered a great honor to assist a Torah scholar. I was raised with this value. When my grandfather was young he had the honor of assisting Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and I had the privilege to assist my grandfather.
When I was in Yeshiva me and my friends fought for the privilege of assisting Rabbis. If you were given the honor of doing so it was something of a status symbol. I didn’t feel like the students did it for the status, we did it because we so admired and respected our Rabbis and we felt that by helping them and spending time with them in seemingly mundane situations we could learn from them in ways that were more profound than simply listening to them lecture.
I can see how this would seem strange to a skeptic who did not share my experience. In the wake of the most recent devastating Rabbi scandal in which a Rabbi who did some truly horrific things also exploited his congregants and potential converts to do all sorts of tasks for him, I can completely understand why this would sound like I and other yeshiva students were somehow victimized by our Rabbis as well.
And perhaps some students in retrospect do feel that they were taken advantage of.
I know of many Rabbis who no longer take small favors from congregant or students who are eager to help them because they do not want to be accused of exploiting. While it sounds noble to reject an offer to help, Rabbi Zeira notes that rejecting a gift, an invitation, or an offer to help, in certain instances can be very insulting.
Not to mention that it deprives students of what could be a valuable educational opportunity. I am glad that my Rabbis allowed me to assist them. I learned many lessons that serve me well to this day, and I am indebted to those teachers for allowing me the opportunity to learn them.
Returning to our original discussion, how do we decide which Rabbis are worthy of learning from by assisting them and which rabbis may be exploiting us?
More generally, in my experience there is a point where a student makes a certain unspoken commitment to become a student of a particular Rabbi. To the degree that you commit to being a student of that Rabbi your name becomes associated with your teacher. I imagine that this type of relationship is not unique to Rabbi/student. It can apply to any field where one takes on a mentor of any kind.
It is one thing to be careful before you make that commitment. But Rashi seems to be saying that even with Abraham, until the person is dead, there is always the chance that they will go off the path, and we should be loathe to fully associating with someone until they are dead and buried so that we can be sure that their legacy will be only positive.
It just seems to me that a tension exists between the commitment that the Gemara thinks we should make to a teacher, verses the skepticism that we should maintain about anyone, no matter how righteous.
After discussing this question with a friend, we agreed in the end that it is worth the risk to make a commitment to associate with someone who you find to be a great teacher. But in the event that, God forbid, the person becomes associated with a scandal, you have to be able to walk away.
Somehow saying, “The God of Yitzchak” is an attachment that God does not give until he is completely sure. God could walk with Noach as long as Noach was still good. But Noach failed at the end of his life, so we do not say, “The God of Noach.”
My take away is that it is important to constantly evaluate our relationship with teachers and make sure that they are healthy. Commit to learning as much as we can without fear that there will somehow be a scandal. But if a scandal arises, be able to walk away with no strings attached.