Who do we talk to when we face a challenge? When we’ve faltered and are ashamed of ourselves, or when we lack clarity, to whom do we turn?
My most spiritually difficult times in life persisted in light of an absence of the support I desperately needed or didn’t realize I needed.
Judaism envisions having a support system that helps us see clearly during uncertainty and holds us accountable when we are hiding out.
If we have a personal issue, problem or failing and feel we cannot talk about it to anyone, then there’s a significant problem. As a Rabbi occupied with Jewish outreach, I’ve observed many Jews abandoning a commitment to Judaism due to the pain, challenges and confusion in their lives and not truly being understood by those tasked with understanding. If only they had the right people to speak to. I can’t blame them, for I too was in those shoes facing significant spiritual challenges having no one I felt I could turn to.
So, the Torah instructs us to take ownership of the issue and set up a system of support to address our personal needs. Shlomo Hamelech taught us:
A heart knows the bitterness of its soul (Ecclesiastes 14:10)
In other words, only we know the depth of our challenges and what’s in our heart so it behooves us to find the people that speak to us and can guide us properly.
The Mishnah in Pirket Avot says (1:6): Yehoshua ben Perachia says, “Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend and judge every person favorably.”
Firstly, we make for ourselves a mentor. Yaakov Astor, the founding Editor-in-Chief of Zman Magazine, tells the following story in light of this dictum:
The Master of the Blind Wise Men asked his disciples to travel into the jungle to find out what is an elephant. Weeks later, the disciples returned. The first disciple said, “Master, an elephant is a thick, round object shaped like a tree trunk.”
The next disciple said, “Master, I don’t know what our colleague is talking about. An elephant is a long, skinny, leathery-type hose that blows water out of its end.”
The third disciple then said, “Master, an elephant, in fact, is a flat paper-thin membrane that flaps up and down.”
Finally, the fourth disciple said, “Master, none of them know what they are talking about. An elephant is an extremely thin whip-like object with some hairs at the end.”
The master then told them they were all right and all wrong. Each of them had only described a part of the elephant.
The Rav, teacher and mentor, helps us step out of ourselves and see the larger picture, allowing us to be a bit wiser in the process. It is a crucial person to have in our lives and is the gateway to living with greater clarity and purpose.
Then, we need to acquire for ourselves a friend. Says Professor Avigdor Shinan:
Acquire for yourself a friend: a close friend, who participates together with a person in their joy and sorrow, a friend with whom one consults and trusts.
Someone who we can truly be ourselves around and someone we can consult and trust. We are trusting that they will have our best interest in mind and be honest with us. The Gr’a comments that this friend מעמידו על האמת.
They hold us accountable in helping us see the truth, even if it hurts and even if it requires seeing ourselves in a true and unfavorable light. This is a true friend, as it comes out of love and friendship.
Finally, we are taught to judge others favorably. The mentor and friend help raise us up, stretching us to be our better selves. Yet, our success might lead us to viewing others in a less favorable light. So therefore the Mishnah concludes, “judge every person favorably.”
The significance of this cannot be overstated: be easy on others. Everyone is facing a battle we know nothing about and as a community Rabbi, the more people I meet, the more I see how every single individual has significant issues, in one form or another.
As we strive to do teshuvah, we remember not only what we need to do personally, but the rabbanim, mentors and friends that help us get there.