A recent article in the Derher Magazine takes a look at the Rebbe’s drive for everyone to have a mashpia, and explains the how, why, who and what of the important factor in every chossid’s life.
We are all familiar with the concept of having a rav, mashpia and spiritual guide. It is a longstanding institution in Yiddishkeit, and especially the world of Chassidus, beginning from the times of the Alter Rebbe.
On two separate occasions, the Rebbe made a massive push for this to become common practice: In 5737, the Rebbe reenacted the institution of mashpi’im, asking that eligible people in every city and shul should step up and lead their communities. Then, in 5746, he broadened the campaign under the term “asei lecha rav”: Whereas the previous campaign was directed at the mashpi’im, this time the Rebbe called for every individual—men, women, and children—to appoint for themselves someone who they could confide with, be accountable to, and who could help resolve questions—for this would give them tremendous help in avodas Hashem. The Rebbe spoke about it many times throughout the year, explaining the mivtza, defining it, and beseeching everyone to fulfill it.
Let us explore some of the key elements of why and how to consult a mashpia:
Why is it so important?
First and foremost, the Rebbe said, we are commanded in the first perek of Pirkei Avos, asei lecha rav, to appoint for ourselves a rav—and it is repeated twice, by two different tanna’im. Thus, even if we wouldn’t understand why it’s important, we would still be obligated to do so without asking any questions. But it happens to be that asei lecha rav is one of the mishpatim—its importance is clearly understood, and if you think about it even briefly, you recognize how crucial it is, as we will explore below.
What is the Role of a Rav?
As the Rebbe explained, there are several key roles that a rav fills:
1) An unbiased view: Everyone has areas in avodas Hashem where they can improve: we all have a yetzer hara who attempts to block our progress, and there is always room to rise and grow in Yiddishkeit. The challenge is that people are not usually good self-evaluators, and we cannot depend on self-assessment. In order to get an honest assessment, we must appoint a rav/mashpia who is greater than ourselves, someone we will confide in, who will measure and test our progress in avodas Hashem, and whose guidance we will follow.
2) Accountability: The Rebbe’s campaign to appoint a rav came together with a push for tests for yeshiva bochurim with a similar goal. Just as tests should be used to motivate students, every person should go to their rav/mashpia to test and measure their progress from time to time. The very fact that one is accountable to someone else is a powerful motivator.
3) Resolving questions: Due to the darkness of the world, one might be confronted with a situation in which he doesn’t see Torah’s light and guidance. Torah provides us the tool to resolve these questions, enabling us to continue doing our work: to ask a rav.
(In fact, in the landmark sichos of 5748, when the Rebbe gave the guidelines on how to make decisions without his personal input, he said that questions in avodas Hashem should be resolved with the help of a rav, medical questions should be resolved by an expert doctor, and business decisions by understanding friends.)
You can be confident with his advice: Being that you fulfilled the Torah’s command to appoint a rav and chose this person b’hashgacha pratis, he will certainly resolve all your questions.
Resolving your questions helps you be as stringent as you need to be—and also not to be too stringent: When one has a conundrum, it is not always correct to err on the side of caution, and resolving these questions with a rav helps chart the proper path.
Who Is It For?
Every single person is enjoined in Pirkei Avos asei lecha rav—appoint for yourself a rav. This applies to everyone: Even a child needs a rav to help deal with his yetzer hara (sometimes even more so than adults). And the child will be willing to listen to a rav when he sees that his father, too, has a rav.
In fact, even a rav needs a rav, for he, too, is biased about himself and needs an honest opinion. As the Rebbe said many times, the Mishnah uses the term asei, which implies that one must force themselves to do so. Even if it’s not easy, even if one doesn’t understand why they need a rav—and even if one thinks that they cannot find anyone greater than themselves. Even if one is very methodical and wants to find the perfect candidate, don’t wait around and have nothing to show; appoint a rav now, and if necessary it can be changed later.
In fact, it is even more important for a rav to have his own rav, since he is involved in piskei dinim that affect many people, and therefore he must have access to an unbiased view.
What Should I Be Talking About?
You should discuss all areas of avodas Hashem, both sur meira and asei tov— including Torah-learning, your tzedakah, and even how you’re serving Hashem in mundane matters.
The Rebbe said that some people appoint themselves a rav—but the yetzer hara tries to convince them to be selective about which things they discuss. If they are confident that the rav will agree with them—they immediately consult with him. If they are unsure if he will agree—they cannot decide whether they should go to him today or push it off until “tomorrow.” And in areas where they are certain that he will not agree with them, areas that are against their geshmak—then they really push it off: ‘Why put myself in hot water?”
The Rebbe said, “A great foundation of true moral conduct is to ask the rav everything. The priority should be to specifically discuss areas that you feel are not going well, or things you aren’t sure about. This means even if you simply notice that someone else disapproves of your behavior… it is certainly hashgacha pratis [and you should speak it over with your rav].”
Obviously, you will not threaten your rav that you will drop him if he doesn’t give you the answer you’re looking for… Once he gives you his opinion, you must follow it. He should become your full fledged rav, so that your entire life is lived according to his guidance—not that you listen to him sometimes and to someone else at other times…
Which Questions Should I Ask?
When it comes to resolving questions and doubts, the Rebbe cautioned that the rav should not become an easy fallback:
Someone might think that whenever he has a question or doubt (in Torah, avodas Hashem, or in his life), he can get away with simply asking a rav and placing the responsibility on him, thus avoiding working on it himself.
Hashem gave each person the power to find the solution to all his questions and doubts, through true toil, yagaata u’matzasa.
Today, the Rebbe said, after so much was accomplished in spreading Chassidus and Yiddishkeit, every one of us has been given the power to successfully be mechaven to the truth, especially through studying and toiling in the Rebbe’s Torah and spreading Chassidus. The ultimate goal of a teacher is that his student’s mind becomes like his—that our minds should decipher the Rebbe’s kavana.
We are told to appoint a rav for ourselves—but that is only after we work on it ourselves. Once we’ve found all the answers that we can, we should not convince ourselves that we know the answer to everything, rather we should go to our rav for further guidance. (The Rebbe added that even the act of finding a rav and speaking to him is part of our own avoda and it is meant to develop and grow the mind of the talmid.)
Whom Should I Choose?
Men should find a rav; women should find a female-mashpiah, and children should go to their parents, teachers, or madrichim (“counselors”). Bochurim in yeshiva should go to their teachers, and if there are several roshei yeshiva, they can choose one. (In a private answer to a bochur, however, the Rebbe said that he could choose someone from outside the hanhala.)
The Rebbe gave several specific pointers:
You can choose whichever rav you want—similar to the fact that we are enjoined to study the areas of Torah that our hearts desire.
A rav/mashpia should be someone who is greater than you, yet on your level. For example, if a child studying Chumash asks his questions to a prominent rav, he will be wasting both of their time—the rav’s time will be spent on answering a simple question, which could have been posed to someone else, and it will also waste the child’s time, because the rav has to figure out how to communicate the answer with a child. A child should be asking his melamed, his teacher, who is fluent in the child’s terminology and will have an immediate answer.
As a person grows, he may graduate (or even surpass) his current rav, and it will be time to find someone else.
As a general rule, the rav should be someone who truly has the traits that personify Yidden: Baishanim, rachmanim, and gomlei chassadim—he should be bashful, merciful, and one who does kind deeds.
For further reading, including a detailed timeline of the Rebbe’s campaign, stories and letters from the Rebbe on the subject, and more than 40 extensive footnotes, see the article “Guidance” in this month’s Derher magazine.