Clinging to the Wise Man
In this week's Portion, the Torah commands the people to go in the ways of God and to "cling to Him." (1) The Sifri,(2) quoted by Rashi, asks how it is possible to cling to God, given that He is described in another place in the Torah as an "all-consuming fire"? (3) The Sifri answers that the Torah is instructing us to cling to Talmidei Chachamim (wise men) (4) and their students; by doing that it is considered as if we cling to God himself.
The commentaries(5) derive from here an obligatory mitzvah to learn from Talmidei Chachamim and try to develop a connection with them, in order to learn Torah with the correct understanding(6) A person might understand that it is a good mode of behavior to cling to Chachamim, however it is essential to recognize that it is a Torah obligation.
Rav Moshe Chaim Luzatto in Path of the Just also discusses the importance of learning from Talmidei Chachamim, particularly with regards to personal growth. He writes that one of the main strategies of the yetzer hara (negative inclination) is to confuse people so that they do not recognize the difference between good and evil. Accordingly, they believe they are acting correctly, when in truth they are being tricked by their yetzer hara. How can a person avoid this trap?
He answers with an analogy. A person finds himself in a very complicated maze, and there is only one path that leads to the exit. Most paths do not lead anywhere; in fact they take him away from his destination. The person has no way himself of finding the correct path because the possible paths look identical to each other. The only way to escape such a maze is to take advice from someone who has already been through it and arrived safely at the other side. He can advise the person stuck inside which is the correct path to take. So too, a person who has not yet mastered his yetzer hara will find it impossible to overcome it without the guidance of Talmidei Chachamim who have spent many years refining their characters.(7)
We have seen how essential it is for one's spiritual well-being to learn from wise men. However, a person may argue that this is an overly difficult mitzvah because a significant amount of effort and persistence is required to attach oneself to Chachamim due to their busy schedules and the fact that already many people flock to them. The answer to this point is found in the words of the greatest wise man, Moses. In Deuteronomy, he recounts the episode when Jethro suggested that Moses refrain from ruling on every matter of law, rather, other wise men should be appointed to guide the people in certain questions.(8) The practical reason for this was in order to lessen the burden for Moses and for the people who had to wait a long time for Moses to be available.(9) Moses agreed to the suggestion and instructed the people to appoint Chachamim. The people gladly agreed to this request.
Rashi points out that in his recollection of this incident, Moshe rebuked the people for their enthusiasm for Jethro's idea. Moshe was telling them, "you should have answered, our teacher, Moses, from who is it better to learn, from you or from your students, is it not [better to learn] from you, who suffered over it [the Torah]?!" (10) Moshe rebuked them for not wanting to learn from the greatest wise man, despite the fact that they would have to endure significant hardships in order to do so. We see from here how important it is to be willing to be willing to make that extra effort to learn from Chachamim.
The Alter of Novardok zt"l expressed the importance of clinging to wise men, when extolling the greatness of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky; who was widely acknowledged as the leading Rabbi in the early decades of the twentieth century. "His wisdom and genius is so great and of so much depth and breadth, because when he was young he was always to be found in the presence of the Gedolei Hador (greatest Rabbis). He never said to them, 'accept my opinion,' rather he made himself into a 'vessel' who would listen and absorb all the opinions and explanations of all the Gedolim there. He absorbed into his very being all the wisdom that he heard and his wisdom became purified and elevated by the greatness of many generations that became embedded in his mind." (11) When people discuss the greatness of Rav Grodzensky they generally focus on his incredible natural genius and ability to think of many things at the same time. We see from the words of the Alter that the key to his greatness was his willingness to learn from Talmidei Chachamim.
The Sefer HaChinuch points out that this mitzvah is also incumbent upon women. He writes, "This mitzvah is in place in every place, at all times, for men, and it is also a mitzvah for women to hear the words of Chachamim so that they will learn how to know God." (12) It is interesting to note that the Sefer HaChinuch also writes that women are not obligated in the mitzvah of Talmud Torah (learning Torah). (13) Nevertheless they are obligated to seek out Chachamim to guide them in their Divine Service.
It is clear from the sources discussing this mitzvah that both men and women must strive to learn from Chachamim. This is a particularly relevant lesson to people who grew up in environments where the concept of the 'wise and righteous man' is not widespread. In some circles, the concept of 'asking the wise man' for guidance in life issues is almost unheard of - this is partly because intelligence and life wisdom have no necessary correlation. As a result of this, a person may find it unnatural to ask life questions to Rabbis. Rav Noach Weinberg, zt'l addressed this issue - he pointed out that many people spend years on studying in order to attain a certain qualification. However, with regard to basic life issues, such as marriage, child rearing, and life satisfaction, they may spend almost no time studying how to succeed. The results of this failing are clear to see, with the divorce rate skyrocketing, family relationships consistently failing, and general life dissatisfaction commonplace. The Torah teaches that in all such issues it is essential that we learn from Chachamim, people who understand the Torah approach to life challenges and live it in their own lives.
1. Eikev, 11:22.
2. Sifrei, 11:21, quoted by Rashi, Eikev, 11:22. The Gemara in Kesubos, 111b makes the same point.
3. Va'eschanan, 4:24. This is obviously not meant to be understood literally, rather in a figurative sense.
4. Literally translated as 'wise students' - it refers to people who have learnt and internalized vast amounts of Torah.
5. Early commentators, who lived in the period from the 10th Century until the 15th century.
6. See Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvo 434. There are two aspects to this Mitzvo - one is the obligation to study from Talmidei Chachamim and the other is to serve them or spend as much time with them as possible. In this essay we will focus on the aspect of learning from them.
7. Mesillas Yesharim, Ch.3, 'Explanation of the parts of Zehirus.'
8. Parshas Devarim, 1:12-15.
9. Parshas Yisro, 18:18.
10. Rashi, Parshas Devarim, 1:14.
11. 'Hameoros Hagedolim,' quoted in Mishel Avos, ibid.
12. Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvo 434. Although needless to say, it is an optional Mitzva for women and it is essential for them to learn about Jewish philosophy and Jewish law in order to live as Torah Jews.
13. Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvo 419.