The Chassidim sitting at the table were listening intently to their Rebbe as he related divrei Torah at the tisch in honor of Rosh Chodesh. Off to the side sat a young man, who was a follower of another Rebbe, shmoozing with a friend. As he did so, he considered and rejected the fact that he was missing out on the Rebbe’s words.
“He isn’t my Rebbe, so I don’t have to listen to him,” he thought to himself.
The Rebbe sitting at the head of the table was aware of what this individual was thinking, and called out a Chazal that is based on a passuk in this week’s parashah: “The Torah tells us (Bamidbar 21:5): ‘The people spoke against Hashem and Moshe.’ The Gemara (Sanhedrin 110a) teaches that from this we learn that ‘Kol hameharher achar rabbo — Whoever thinks ill of his Rebbe, it is as if he thinks ill of the Shechinah.’”
The Yid at the side heard the announcement, but quickly decided that this Chazal wasn’t relevant to him. This Chazal is referring to a person thinking ill of his Rebbe, and this isn’t my Rebbe.
Once again, the Rebbe was aware of his thoughts.
The Lashon Hakodesh word “achar,” which in the simple context of this Chazal, means “of,” can also mean “another.” The Rebbe interpreted the Chazal thus: “‘Whoever thinks ill,’ thinking that ‘his Rebbe is another,’ it is as if he thinks ill of the Shechinah.”
This time the Yid was stunned as the Rebbe’s words hit close to home. But after a moment he calmed himself down. The Rebbe is probably referring to someone else, he thought.
For a third time the Rebbe addressed his innermost thoughts.
“‘Kol hameharher achar rabbo — whoever thinks that the Rebbe is talking to someone else and not to him, it is as if he is meharher after the Shechinah.”
(According to some sources the Rebbe in this story was Harav Moshe of Kobrin, zy”a; other sources say it was Harav Chanoch Henoch of Alexander, zy”a. It is very possible the same story happened with both tzaddikim.)
Throughout our history, we have been plagued by the destructive phenomenon of those who judge our judges. When an individual casts doubt on an accepted spiritual mentor — whether his own or another — he rarely realizes that his motives are generally based on a combination of jealousy and arrogance. Often he is rankled by the honor given to this mentor, and arrogantly assumes that he is in a position to judge the merits of someone who is on a considerably higher spiritual level than he is.
Another factor that must be considered — especially in the contemporary generation — is a basic failure to recognize just how much every Jew needs the guidance of a spiritual mentor.
Chazal (Sanhedrin 101a) relate that when Rabi Eliezer fell ill, four sages came to visit him.
“You are better for Yisrael than a drop of rain,” Rabi Tarfon told Rabi Eliezer. “For a drop of rain is [beneficial only] in this world, while [the Rebbi benefits us by teaching Torah] in this world and the world to come.”
“You are better for Yisrael than the orb of the sun,” Rabi Yehoshua said to Rabi Eliezer. “For the orb of the sun is in this world, whereas [the Rebbi provides light] in this world and the world to come.”
“You are better for Yisrael than a father and mother, for a father and mother [create life] in this world, whereas [the Rebbi creates life] in this world and the world to come.”
Then Rabi Akiva spoke up.
“Chavivin yissurin — suffering is precious.”
At first glance, Rabi Akiva’s statement appears perplexing. The first three Tanna’im were seeking to arouse Heavenly mercy for his recovery by relating the greatness of Rabi Eliezer, and yet Rabi Akiva appeared to speak about another topic entirely.
In Sichos Mussar, Hagaon Harav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt”l, gives a very powerful explanation: Rabi Akiva was adding to the words of the other Tanna’im by pointing out yet another, vital reason why it was so important for Rabi Eliezer to stay alive.
Chavivin yissurin — suffering is precious. It purifies and rectifies a person and provides an ideal opportunity for spiritual growth. However in order for an individual to appropriately deal with life’s challenges, he must have a rebbi, a spiritual mentor, who will guide him in the proper direction. Because chavivin yissurin, it was so crucial for Rabi Eliezer to stay alive.
We live in an era of unprecedented challenges and obstacles. The need for each of us to have a spiritual mentor whom we respect and admire has never been greater.