Whoever planned the calendar really messed this part up. Way too early, before anyone has had a chance to get to know the staff of their programs, it’s already Sukkos. And that means they need to know – Do I hold one day, or two? Some programs have an official policy for their students, but most leave it up to them – “Just ask your Rebbi,” they say. But who’s your Rebbi? Is it the person whose Shiur I was placed in at the beginning of the year? The Rosh Yeshiva or head of my program? Can I just ask the Frum but relatable guy who just made Aliya what to do? What about figuring in my family practice – which was either based on a Psak from a Rav, or someone at some point just decided one way or the other? You’re definitely not alone in feeling confused and not knowing who to turn to. You need a Rebbi.
Most obviously, you need a Rebbi for Halachic issues. A Rebbi with experience answering Shailos ensures that you’re following Halacha throughout your life. While many questions would get the same answer no matter who you ask, there are a significant number of questions where the answer isn’t so clear-cut, and can vary based on the circumstances of the person asking. For these questions, a relationship with a Rebbi who knows you is crucial.
More broadly, your Rebbi is the person you’ll go to when trying to figure out what you want your life to look like. This is true for small-picture questions, like what should I do over the summer or deal with a relationship problem that just cropped up, as well as big-picture questions: what personal strengths should I be investing in, should I make Aliya or go back to the States? A Rebbi can help provide objective, Torah-influenced guidance for dealing with these types of questions, helping you answer the question, “Mah Hashem Elokecha Sho’el MeiImach – What does Hashem want me to do here?”
Finally, a Rebbi is a role model. So many students form their pictures of the ideal Shabbos environment based on the Shabbatot they spend with their Rebbeim in Yeshiva. A Rebbi can provide an invaluable prototype of an invested parent who raises healthy and inspired kids, while developing a respectful and private relationship with his wife. While this aspect is less tangible and direct than the Hashkafic and Halachic guidance, it’s one of the most significant benefits that come from having a Rebbi.
Before moving on, it's important to note that there are some roles most teachers or Rebbeim are not qualified to fill. Even the best, most insightful Rebbi or teacher is not a therapist. They may have lots of experience with students going through similar situations, but they have usually not received training on dealing with actual mental health issues. A responsible Rebbe or teacher needs to know when they are out of their depth and involve a professional social worker or therapist. At the same time, it is also important for the student to know which questions can be answered by a teacher or Rebbe, and which need a different approach.
Similarly, Rebbeim and teachers are not Neviim. Their word is not law; they may know you well, but they cannot and should not dictate every decision for you. It is very possible for them to make mistakes. A good Rebbe is able to recognize when his guidance might have been off course; the humility to admit that and apologize is a wonderful sign that you have a relationship with a very special person. On the other hand, if the teacher or mentor gets upset when you don't follow his suggestions, be very careful. Although not always true, it might be a sign that there's a significant amount of ego involved.
So we understand why a Rebbi is important; Yehoshua Ben P'rachia wasn't kidding when he prescribed Asei L'Cha Rav. Ideally (in real life, it’s unlikely to find someone who perfectly embodies every characteristic, fully embodying the Gemara's directive to be like a Malach Hashem Tzakos), what should you look for when choosing a Rebbi?
Ideally, you’re looking for someone who is able and looking to develop a personal relationship with you. A Rebbi isn’t someone who just delivers a Shiur, it’s someone who wants to get to know you and help you grow. Recognize that it might be a chicken-and-egg phenomenon: the Rebbi is much more likely to invest once you’ve already demonstrated that you’re looking for a relationship. You might have to decide on the Rebbi and start trying to build the Kesher even without feeling like the Rebbi currently cares about you so much, hoping that it comes with time.
Part of the Rebbi getting to know you is understanding your background. In order to appreciate what challenges you’re facing and what goals are realistic, the Rebbi has to have a basic sense of the community and background you’re coming from. The more he’s familiar with, such as family and school, the better grasp he’ll have on what helped mold you into who you are now.
Once he knows where you’re coming from, the next step is helping you figure out where you’re going. Again, the Rebbi needs to ideally be familiar with the different paths you face ahead. For example, most Talmidim are deciding between YU/Touro, Aliya, and secular college for their years after Yeshiva. A Rebbi who only knows one of those 3 options will find it very difficult to offer quality advice and guidance when you’re making your decision. If you end up choosing one of those other two, that means the Rebbi will be hard-pressed to fully get the issues you’ll be dealing with for the next couple of years. That doesn’t necessarily make him irrelevant, but it will make on-point guidance more difficult than from a Rebbi who has a better handle on what you’re going through.
Hashkafos need to line up, as well. A student who already knows he appreciates the intricacies of biology or math will not appreciate guidance from a “Torah-only” Rebbi. At the same time, a student who sees his time in college merely as a means to get a job that will support his family, will find that the advice of a real-deal “Torah U’Madda” Rebbi often won’t resonate. Questions such as, how should I balance time on my college classes and assignments with learning, or should I mainly choose easy classes or interesting classes, will all be answered based on the perspective of the Rebbi answering. Testing Hashkafic ‘fit’ is more of a feeling than an objective test. Things like Q + A’s are great opportunities to gauge whether you identify with and appreciate the Rebbi’s answers. If they generally resonate with you, that’s a good sign you’ve found a potential match.
Keep in mind that Hashkafa develops over time. First of all, you’re personally maturing and gaining a better understanding of what makes you tick, where your natural Netios point towards. Second, the more Torah you learn, the broader your perspective will be on general Torah issues, better equipping you to choose and recognize a legitimate strain of Hashkafa. Third, taking time to specifically explore each Hashkafa through the sources will help you get an idea of where this whole area of Torah comes from and what actually resonates with you. It could well be that you identify a certain way at the beginning of your year in Israel, differently at the end, and still differently after a few years out.
Finally, your Rebbi needs to be accessible. You could have found someone who checks all the boxes above, but if you have no way of getting in touch with him outside of Yeshiva, it will be almost impossible for the relationship to thrive and for you to get consistent guidance over time. The perfect personality may not have time to develop a deep relationship due to other responsibilities or things going on. While that doesn’t mean that any Rebbi without Whatsapp is automatically irrelevant, accessibility is still an important factor to think about when making your choice.
While choosing a Rebbi is a big decision, it’s not a permanent one. It is perfectly normal to have a deep, meaningful relationship with a Rebbi for a couple of years before circumstances dictate the wisdom of choosing a new Rebbi, for any number of reasons. So don’t let the fear of making a ‘wrong’ choice hold you back – choose a Rebbi, start to develop the relationship, and see where things go.Return to Blog