Parshas Shoftim: The Vital Rebbe-Talmid Relationship

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Shoftim, the Torah commands the Bnei Yisrael to establish Arei Miklat, cities of refuge, where one who killed someone accidentally would run to seek safety and refuge from the go’el ha’dam, the redeemer of blood, of the deceased person.  As long as the accidental killer remained in the Ir Miklat, he could not be harmed, nor could his life be taken, by the go’el ha’dam. 

Three Cities of Refuge were established in Eretz Yisrael proper, and three others on Ever La’Yarden (the eastern side of the Jordan River) in the territory of the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half the tribe of Menashe. 

The pasuk tells us: וְזֶה דְּבַר הָרֹצֵחַ, אֲשֶׁריָנוּס שָׁמָּה וָחָי: אֲשֶׁר יַכֶּה אֶתרֵעֵהוּ בִּבְלִידַעַת, וְהוּא לֹאשֹׂנֵא לוֹ מִתְּמֹל שִׁלְשֹׁםand this is the matter of the killer who shall flee there and he shall live: One who will strike his fellow without knowledge, and he did not hate him from yesterday or before yesterday (Devarim 19:4).  

What do we learn from the words וָחָי, “and he shall live”?  

Writes Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Bregman in Short and Sweet on the Parsha (Feldheim), “The words ‘and he shall live’ appear here and elsewhere in the Torah in regard to the accidental killer, and in reference to this phrase the Gemara (Makkos 10a) expounds these words to mean that if a disciple is exiled to a City of Refuge, his teacher is exiled along with him.  This is because we must provide him arrangements that enable him to ‘live’ – as the verse says: אֲשֶׁריָנוּס שָׁמָּה וָחָי, that he shall flee to there and live – and a student cannot survive without his rebbe!  In fact, the Ritva, and many others, say that this halacha applies even if there are many other great talmidei chachamim and rabbonim available with whom one can learn in the City of Refuge.  Because a talmid cannot survive without his rebbe; and a student cannot survive without his teacher.

“A fascinating source that teaches about the importance of the rebbe-talmid relationship is found in Pesachim 112a.  R’ Shimon bar Yochai came to visit his rebbe, the great R’ Akiva when he had been imprisoned for teaching Torah.  R’ Shimon bar Yochai asked R’ Akiva, his rebbe, to teach him Torah, and R’ Akiva said that he could not do so at this time.  R’ Shimon bar Yochai replied that if R’ Akiva would not teach him, he would go to his father (Yochai) and they would inform on him to the government officials, and get him in further trouble!

“The Alter of Slabodka (Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt’l, 1849-1927) asks a question on this Gemara.  Yes, R’ Shimon bar Yochai wanted to learn more Torah, but how could he speak to his own rebbe with such seemingly blatant chutzpah?  

“The Alter answers that R’ Shimon bar Yochai did no wrong; in fact, he did the right thing and spoke well.  He was trying to tell R’ Akiva that everything he had become in life was through the rebbe-talmid relationship he had with R’ Akiva, and without it, R’ Shimon bar Yochai could envision himself spiritually falling backwards, to the point where he could one day potentially become so corrupt he would become the lowest of the low, a moiser (one who informs on his fellow Jews to the foreign powers and government rulers).  

“This is what he meant by his threat to R’ Akiva.”  If you don’t teach me, rebbe, R’ Shimon bar Yochai was saying, I may fall so low and so far I may even become a person who would (potentially) inform on another Jew!  

“In asking R’ Akiva to teach him,” and issuing an ultimatum, “it was a plea to save him from spiritually backsliding.”

As to why R’ Shimon bar Yochai could not simply learn from a different Torah teacher of leader of that generation?  “The answer is the same yesod – a student cannot survive without his own rebbe” (Short and Sweet on the Parsha, p.479-480).

So integral is the importance of the rebbe-talmid, teacher-student, relationship to our survival as a nation and the transmission of the mesorah, that even a person exiled to the City of Refuge must have his rebbe join him!

In regard to the rebbe-talmid relationship of Rav Mosheh Twersky zt’l HY”D (rebbe at Yeshivas Toras Moshe, J’lem; eldest grandson of R’ Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt’l; murdered in the Har Nof terror attack), his talmid, R’ Yehoshua Berman was maspid and said, “Rebbi was incredibly devoted to his talmidim.  He learned privately with so many talmidim over the years, in addition to the innumerable shiurim that he delivered and the night sedarim that he spent answering questions.  One time during shiur, after explaining a certain point, rebbe said, ‘Are there any questions?  Now is the time to ask!’  He wasn’t just teaching Gemara.  He was teaching talmidim.  His concern was they they should understand.  If they didn’t, he would take the time to explain it again… and again, if necessary, even if that meant that he would not get to the next topic that he wanted to delve into that day. 

“… Rebbe never brushed off a talmid’s question… to brush off a question as being silly or irrelevant – never.  His respect and concern for his talmidim was just too great for that… His concern for his talmidim was all-encompassing…He was an absolute giant in Torah scholarship, but what a gentle giant he was!” (Living On, Feldheim, p.91-93).

Chazal teach us: עשֵׂה לְךָ רַבestablish for yourself a rav (Pirkei Avos 1:6).  Let us each appreciate the relationship we must establish with our rabbeim, rabbonim and teachers, and the vital necessity of learning Divrei Elokim Chaim from their wisdom, Torah erudition and guidance, so that we may climb ever higher in all areas of our avodas Hashem.  

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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