Harav Yechezkel, the Rebbe of Kuzmir, zy”a, was once approached by a Yid seeking his advice in regard to a business matter. The Rebbe declined to reply. The same Yid was still present when another individual, a close Chassid, began to speak to the Rebbe. Much to the consternation of the first petitioner, the Rebbe gave his advice about the Chassid’s financial dealings and added a warm brachah for much hatzlachah.
The deeply hurt Yid gathered his courage and addressed the Rebbe. “When the Rebbe refused to answer my request, I understood that it was because the Rebbe has an aversion to temporal matters. But why, then, did the Rebbe agree to talk to this other Yid about such matters just because he is a Chassid?”
The Rebbe replied with a parable of a businessman who, during a trip to the fair in Leipzig, spent a long day and part of the night in the shop of a wealthy merchant making extensive purchases. It was quite late when his personal servant walked in and informed him that they had run out of grease for the wheels and axle of their wagon.
“What will we do?” the concerned servant said. “All the shops are closed already.”
The shop owner overheard the exchange and graciously offered to supply the needed grease. “The supply I prepared for my own wagon contains enough for both of us,” he said. “Just don’t rush out on me until we finish calculating the entire order!”
As they were conversing, a stranger, who was also looking to buy some wheel grease, walked into the shop and overheard the conversation. “Please be so kind and sell me some wheel grease,” he requested. “I desperately need it for my wagon.”
The shop owner wasn’t amused. “Who do you think I am? A seller of grease?” he replied. “This customer bought from me a very large amount of merchandise, so I gave him a little grease that I had acquired for my personal needs. But I have nothing to do with you. You didn’t buy any of my goods and all you want is wheel grease.”
“The same applies here,” the Rebbe explained. “This Chassid is a great yerei Shamayim who comes to me to learn about avodas Hashem. Now, he also requires some advice pertaining to his travails in this temporal world — much like the merchant’s need for the grease — and so I gave him advice and a blessing.
“But you,” the Rebbe continued, “came to seek my advice only regarding materialistic matters.”
The Rebbe’s grandson, the Divrei Yisrael of Modzhitz, zy”a, applied the lesson of this story to the exchange between Yisro and Moshe Rabbeinu.
Yisro demanded to know: “What is this thing that you do to the people? Why do you sit alone with all the people standing by you from morning to evening?”
In a teaching he refers to as b’derech tzachos, the Modzhitzer Rebbe says that Yisro was objecting to the fact that Moshe Rabbeinu was ignoring the members of Bnei Yisrael who were seeking counsel in material matters. Moshe Rabbeinu replied by saying, “When the people come to me to seek [the ways of avodas] Hashem, then, when they have a matter regarding temporal issues, I also answer them. But to those who only come to me about Olam Hazeh, I don’t respond.”
Though the Rebbe states that this interpretation is non-literal, the underlying message is very relevant.
As alluded to in the Ramban on this very passuk, going to a tzaddik to seek assistance in such matters as finding a lost item or to ask the tzaddik to daven for someone ill was already common at the time of Moshe Rabbeinu. This practice is mentioned in Tanach as well.
But at the same time, one must bear in mind that the primary role of a spiritual mentor is to serve as a source of guidance and inspiration in avodas Hashem.
In a country and age in which the pursuit of happiness has long been redefined as a pursuit of materialism, placing foremost emphasis on ruchniyus is particularly challenging.
In this week’s parashah, the Torah informs us that Moshe named his older son Gershom, because “I was a sojourner in a strange land,” and his younger son Eliezer, because Hashem “came to my aid and saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.”
Hagaon Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, wonders about the sequence of the name-giving, as the miracle of being saved from Pharaoh’s executioner occurred before Moshe Rabbeinu was a stranger in Midian. In addition, why did Moshe Rabbeinu see fit to give a name referring to the fact that he was in a strange land?
Rav Moshe explains that the miracle of escaping Pharaoh’s wrath was worthwhile only because Moshe Rabbeinu remained a stranger in Midian and made certain that he would not be influenced by the Midianites and their culture. For had he assimilated in Midian and not served Hashem, he would not have had reason to celebrate his being saved. Only after he thanked Hashem for the fact that he has stayed a stranger could he give thanks for the miracle of escaping Pharaoh.