Parshas Lech L’cha – The Danger of Forsaking Your Rebbe

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פרשת לך לך

In Parshas Lech L’cha we read about Lot, the loyal disciple of Avraham Avinu. When Avraham was told by Hakodosh Boruch Hu to forsake his home in Charan, to go to Eretz Canaan, Lot was willing to take the journey with him. Now this was a big sacrifice in ancient times because it entailed very great ordeals. In those days, a man had only family rights and a stranger in a new land could be misused and abused at will. It was only the extended family, the tribe, that afforded protection. And therefore to leave one’s family to become a ger, a stranger, in a foreign country, entailed great sacrifice. But Lot made this great sacrifice. And he did it for one reason only; because of his loyalty to Avraham, his Rebbi. Avraham was the great teacher of thousands who dedicated his life to spreading the name of Hashem Echad in the world (Rambam Hilchos Avodah Zarah 1:3). And Lot who was his loyal talmid, wouldn’t forsake his Rebbi even under the most difficult of circumstances.

And Lot actually became a virtuous man because he remained close with Avraham. Not like some people think that Lot was a mere nobody. He was a somebody – a somebody with a capital S. Lot listened carefully to the teachings of Avraham for many many years and he could repeat all of the lectures of his great Rebbi. And he was מוסר נפש, he was willing to go to the greatest extremes to remain close to his Rebbi.

But Lot was soon to make the biggest mistake of his life. Lot was a great man, but even the greatest of men must be on guard always against the wiles of the yetzer harah that is seducing man towards failure and everlasting regret. And Lot, who was growing greater and greater under the tutelage of Avraham, began to think that maybe he didn’t need his Rebbi so much anymore. And so let us study together the story in our Parsha, and make an attempt to glean the lessons of Hashem’s wisdom.

The land of Canaan was a wide open and expansive land that had much room for grazing. And even though Avraham and Lot were both wealthy people, heavy with cattle and flocks, there was surely no lack of pasture land. And as all of the great men in our history, Avraham and his talmidim surely spent many days pasturing their flocks, using their time wisely for quiet solitude with Hashem. There is nothing more conducive to becoming tangibly aware of Hashem, than spending time alone with Him, thinking about Him and talking to Him. And therefore, pasturing and shepherding was a mainstay of the lives of Avrohom, Lot and the rest of Avraham’s talmidim.

Now it is certain that Avraham, who was the quintessential עבד השם and lived a life dedicated to chesed, was always very careful with the property of others. And no doubt, he imposed strict restrictions upon his retinue, in order to prevent grazing on other people’s land. When leading the flock and cattle towards the public pasture, the sheperds would pass through the fields that belonged to local people. And Avraham didn’t want his animals to graze on other people’s land. When you know that you’re always standing in front of Hashem, then you are very careful with everything you do. So he had given instructions that you must muzzle every single animal before setting out. So all of the sheep, goats, oxen and cows had to have muzzles put on their mouths. Now, that was some job! A muzzle was placed on each one before they passed through the fields. And when they arrived at their destination in the forests, the public pasture ground, the muzzles had to be removed from each one. And then, at the end of the day, when they finished grazing, the muzzles had to be replaced before trekking back home through the fields. And then when they arrived home, the muzzles had to be removed again. It was quite a job!

And that was only one example of what it really meant to live under the watchful eyes and tutelage of this great man, who kept Hashem before him at all times. Avraham Avinu was the עבד השם par excellence, and he taught all those that he came in contact with, to follow his teachings. I’m sure that there were many demands and restrictions that Avraham imposed on those close to him. Service of Hashem demands a dedication of mind and body, and this requires effort. But for one who is aware of his purpose in this world, these demands are the greatest happiness because they are the path leading towards accomplishment and success. Avraham lived a life of demanding dedication to service of Hashem. And there is no doubt that he demanded the same from his own nephew, Lot.

And we are told the following: ויהי ריב בין רועי מקנה אברם ובין רועי מקנה לוט – “And there arose a dissension between the shepherds of Avram’s livestock, and the shepherds of Lot’s livestock” (Bereishis 13:7). And although the reason for this dissension is given in the proceeding verse, ולא נשא אותם הארץ לשבת יחדיו כי היה רכושם רב ולא יכלו לשבת יחדיו – “And the land was not capable of sustaining both Avraham and Lot together, because their possessions were great. And they could not live together” (ibid. 13:6), it is most important for us to understand the underlying reasons for this dissension between rebbi and talmid.

Lot had begun to chafe under the watchful eyes of Avraham. Lot had grown great through his dedication to Avraham and his teachings. But he mistakenly began to feel that he had grown enough and was ready to be on his own. And once those pernicious thoughts entered his mind, he began to perceive many of the teachings of Avraham, and the criticisms of Avraham as unnecessary and extreme. He began to feel uncomfortable under the authority of Avraham. And he convinced himself that he didn’t Avraham anymore. And by ignoring some of the restrictions that Avraham had imposed upon his own shepherds, Lot demonstrated his subconscious thoughts that Avraham’s authority was irrelevant to him.

And Lot had his reasons. He was not a fool. If you would have asked him, he would have explained to you his reasoning, and you wouldn’t have been able to answer him at all. He certainly knew that the land of Canaan was promised by Hashem to Avraham. And Lot, believing that he would be Avraham’s sole heir – Avraham had no children yet – believed that he already had rights to the land. The family of Canaan was actually usurping the land of Canaan from its rightful owners, the family of Shem. והכנעני אז בארץ, the posuk says. The Canaanites were visitors in the land; temporarily. It wasn’t theirs; they were just there, אז בארץ. They were interlopers who had no right to the land. And besides, Canaan was a degenerate people. And because Lot was the sole heir of the true owner of the land, he therefore allowed his shepherds to graze as they pleased, ignoring the teachings of Avraham. And it could very well be that Lot instructed his sheperds to try to prevent the animals from grazing on strangers’ lands. But to be so extreme, to muzzle every animal?! That’s four times to muzzle and unmuzzle the animals. That’s some job! “Why is my Rebbi being so extreme?” Lot thought. “I don’t need Avraham’s criticism. I can make decisions on my own.”

Like I mentioned earlier, there was enough land in Eretz Canaan for both Avraham and Lot. Even with their large amounts of livestock, there was still enough empty land for Avraham and Lot to live near each other. And yet, when there is friction between a man and his fellow, even the most open area can feel tight and constricted. And that is what the final words of that possuk is telling us: ולא יכלו לשבת יחדיו – “And [Lot began to feel as if] he and Avraham could not live together” (ibid. 13:6). As that fellow quoted by the Gemara said: כי רחימתין הוה עזיזא אפותיא דספסירא שכיבן השתא דלא עזיזא רחימתין פוריא בת שיתין גרמידי לא סגירת לן – “When our love was strong, we could have lain together on the edge of a sword; but now that our love is not as strong, even a bed that is sixty amos wide does not suffice for us” (Sanhedrin 7a).

What the possuk is telling us is that Lot began to feel crowded and burdened by the close living arrangements that he shared with his rebbi. Of course, they had separate tents and lived separate lives to a certain extent. But Lot still lived in very close proximity to Avraham, because that is how a real talmid lives. The way one gains most from a great teacher like Avraham, is by living in close proximity to him, under his watchful eyes and his guidance. But Lot’s mistaken attitude of independence caused him to begin to feel as if suffocating under the critical eyes of his rebbi.

And it was at this moment that Lot was put to the test. ויאמר אברם אל לוט אל נא תהי מריבה ביני ובינך כי אנשים אחים אנחנו…הפרד נא מעלי – “And Avram told Lot: ‘Why should we be in constant friction? We are blood kin. You are my nephew. We shouldn’t be fighting. Let’s separate from each other and each go our own way'” (ibid. 13:8-9). Now Lot could have said: “No, we are not merely blood kin; you are my teacher, and without you, my life is not worth living.” When Avraham put his nephew to this test, the offer to separate, Lot should have thrown himself on the floor in front of Avraham, and said “My teacher Avraham, I would never leave you. You are my life. I need your help to be a success.” This was Lot’s last opportunity to turn away from his mistaken attitude, and accept again the full authority of a person to watch over him.

We have an important rule. לעולם ידור אדם במקום רבו – “A man should always dwell where his teacher is” (Brachos 8a). A man should always make sure to live in the vicinity of his teacher. לעולם, always! Even when you are older and have grown independent. You’re already a גברא רבה, a great man. You should try to be as close as possible in order that you should see your teacher always, and so that he should see you always. You always must remain under the constant watch of somebody else.

And that’s a mitzvah of the Torah. The posuk tells us ולדבקה בו – “And to cling to Hashem” (D’varim 30:20). So the question is, how can one cling to Hakodosh Boruch Hu? Can one go up to heaven and cling to Hakodosh Boruch Hu? So Chazal tell us: הדבק בחכמים ובתלמידיהם – “Cling to the Sages and to their disciples” (Sifrei ibid). “It is a positive commandment to associate with chachomim, and to be one with them, and to remain constantly near them” (Rambam Sefer Hamitzvos: Mitzvos Asei # 6). That’s the explanation of this mitzvah. One of the great benefits of being around chachomim is that the chachomim have different eyes than you do. They see your behavior through the lens of Torah attitudes. And they therefore can guide you by watching over all of your actions, and criticise you when needed.

But there’s one important condition. And that is דכייף ליה לרביה – “That he subjugates himself to his rebbi” (Brachos 8a). One has to feel humbled towards his teacher. He must get along with his teacher and he must be willing to accept the criticism of his teacher. Because that’s why he’s living near him; so that he can improve. But suppose he feels equal? Suppose he’s not כייף לרביה anymore? Suppose he’s not willing to accept the criticism and the guidance of someone else. That’s already the beginning of failing in his purpose in life.

And Lot stumbled and made this error, the most significant error of his life. He allowed himself to be persuaded that he could make his way in this world without a Rebbi to guide him. Lot was a grown man already. And so he thought he could forsake the watchful and critical eyes of a Rebbi. And therefore, he did not attempt to placate his Rebbi and instead considered himself capable of guiding his own affairs. And that was the great error of Lot. Because forsaking a Rebbi means forsaking your connection to Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

And that’s what Rabbi Tarfon told Rabbi Akiva עקיבא כל הפורש ממך כפורש מין החיים – “Akiva, anybody who separates from you is like separating from life itself” (Kiddushin 66b). “You’re my life; I can’t leave you.” The few years you have in this world are your opportunity to achieve, to prepare for the next world. And one of the most effective ways of becoming better, is by being made aware of your חסרונות. And so, if you separate from your Rebbi, your teacher who can guide you towards perfection, you are separating from your purpose in life.

And that’s what Chazal mean when they explain the posuk describing Lot’s departure from Avraham. ויסע לוט מקדם – “And Lot traveled from the east” (ibid. 13:11). And our Sages say, הסיע עצמו מקדמונו של עולם – “He made himself travel away from the Forerunner of the world [Hashem; Who came before the existence of the world]” (Bereishis Rabbah ibid.) Lot travelled away from Hakodosh Boruch Hu at that time. Now some people think that it means that Lot became an atheist. No, that’s wrong. He was still a great man. But when Lot forsook his great teacher, he lost the opportunity to to actualize the potential within him. Leaving Avraham was in effect the beginning of the process of departing from Hashem, the beginning of his deterioration. Because turning away from one who can help you grow, is turning away from Hashem.

And it’s not only a Rebbi who is capable of providing you with this great gift of criticism. A person should never forgo the opportunity of hearing from anybody who is willing to criticize. And it’s not enough to have a wife. Now, it’s true that a wife is an excellent opportunity for hearing the truth about yourself. Oh yes, a critical wife is a glorious opportunity! When a wife criticises her husband, you should know that she is doing a very great thing. In the Kollel, at work, in the synagogue, nobody is going to tell you too much about your sore points. Maybe they’re too polite. Or maybe you put on a good show in public. Nobody will criticize this “great” man! Who’s going to tell you the truth outside the home?! And after a while you begin to think, “Maybe I really am great.” But your wife knows the truth! Of course she does; she knows you better than anyone else. So this important man comes home from shul and his wife deflates him. She sticks a pin in his balloon and it bursts. And lucky is that man whose wife has a big mouth and tells him what she sees. That’s a tremendous achievement. It’s a שלימות, it’s a perfection, to be put down to size once in a while.

But even a man who has a wife who is preparing him, who is perfecting him, a wife who his doing her best to smooth out his rough edges, even that man is commanded עשה לך רב – Make sure to have a Rav who is available to guide you, to criticize you. Don’t think that you know everything. And it doesn’t matter how young or old you are. There’s no end to the amount of information that you require to walk successfully on the דרך השם, on the path that leads to Hashem in the Next World. And if you have nobody that’s telling you anything wrong about yourself, that’s a big problem.

A person walks in blindness all his life. Actually his eyes are wide open when it comes to the faults of others. Oh yes, he’s eagle-eyed when it comes to others. But to see himself?! Never; not a chance. And the truth is, that you’re sitting here and thinking, “It’s true, it’s true, but not me. I’m a self critical man, and I know my faults.” It’s him and it’s him and it’s him. But not you. You really recognize your flaws. Anechtigeh tug! You don’t recognize anything! Do you know how many faults people have?! Someone has to criticise you. You need some kind of instruction. How else will you know the truth? We are living in a world of darkness. Dovid Hamelech said, תשת חשך ויהי לילה – “You Hashem have set down darkness, and it becomes night” (Tehillim 104:20). And Chazal tell us the following: זה העולם הזה הדומה ללילה – “This posuk is speaking of this world, which is similar to the heavy darkness of night” (Bava Metziah 83b). Even when the sun is shining outside, we’re walking around in a darkness of the mind. We’re walking in darkness and we’re blind to the truths of life. And only if someone is teaching you, guiding you, can you make your way through the darkness without falling down. You have to have someone to tell you what’s doing.

Here’s a man who davens Vasikin every morning. And even on Shabbos, he wakes up early to daven with the sunrise. And it’s a beautiful thing. He’s a tzadik. But just to come together for a minyan, and then daven, and go home?! Instead of davening in a place where there is a Rav who will speak some יראת שמים, some words of fear of Hashem? Hearing words of mussar is a valuable opportunity. And it’s more important than Vasikin.

And merely hearing some divrei mussar from a Rav on Shabbos is not enough. It’s not enough to hear some divrei Mussar from the Rav once s week. You need someone who is going to watch over your behavior constantly. Someone who is going to watch you and call you over. So you’ll say, “But I’m an adult already. I’m a family man, a successful person. Am I going to have someone looking over my shoulder all the time?!” Yes; if you want to make something out of yourself, then you’ll need somebody looking over your shoulder all the time.

Here’s a woman who calls me up on the telephone. A lady from Boro Park who wants me to speak with her husband. But I had no influence over him so I asked,” Where does he daven?” She says, “He davens in fifteen places.” He’s davening in different places during the week. Friday night in one place. Shabbos morning in another place. He hasn’t even said Good Shabbos to the Rav ever; and even if he did, he doesn’t know the Rav, and more importantly, the Rav doesn’t know him. “What about his old Rosh Yeshiva,” I ask. He once went to yeshiva, didn’t he? No, he has no contact with him. No contact with a rebbi?! No rebbi, no Rav, no connection to the Rosh Yeshiva. Of course he’s out of control. There’s no hope. It’s a tragedy.

A woman tells me, “Yes, my husband has a rebbi.” “Where is his rebbi?” “Oh, he’s in Eretz Yisroel.” A rebbi in Eretz Yisroel?! A meshugas. Another woman calls me on the telephone and tells me, “My husband has a rebbi.” But the rebbi has been dead for a hundred and fifty years already! A dead rebbi? Of course her husband is satisfied with a dead rebbi. A dead rebbi will never tell him he’s wrong. Ok; Very good, you go to his grave once in a while in Russia, very good. But he won’t be able to point out your faults and guide you to be a better person. He won’t come back from the dead to intervene, to speak to you when you’re causing trouble. You need a live rebbi, a rebbi of flesh and blood, a rebbi who has eyes, who will call you out, and put you on the carpet. Somebody who you’re afraid of. A husband has to be afraid of someone who will tell him that he’s wrong. That’s what restrains him from doing certain things.

Now, I know that it appears a bit strange to you, this concept of searching out criticism. You spend your whole live doing whatever you can, to avoid being told you are wrong,and then along I come and tell you that there is nothing better in the world than having somebody tell you that you’re a failure. But if you would only realize how valuable it is, you would walk the streets searching for people to criticise you. You’d pay money for it! קנה לך חבר – “You should buy for yourself a friend” (Avos 1:6). Why would you spend money on a friend? What is a friend for already? You need a crony to help you waste away your life? To go to a ballgame? To waste your life talking about nothing? No! The best friend, the only friend, is someone who is going to help you come closer to Hakodosh Boruch Hu. That’s what a friend is for. Someone who you learn with. Someone who helps you do mitzvos. And also, someone who will point out your faults. That’s the most valuable friend. That’s the friend that’s worth all the money in the world. That’s what Chazal meant when they said קנה לך חבר (Rabeinu Yonah ibid.)

I’ve dealt with many people over many years. And in my whole career, only one time did the following occur. A yeshiva man in a certain institution where I was employed, approached me and said to me, “I would like you to please point out me anything that I do wrong. Any flaw that you see in me, let me know.” I was floored. I almost fainted. In all my years, of all the people I’ve dealt with, there was only one person! That’s a man who wants to grow great. That’s a man who knows that this world is a פרוזדור לפני העולם הבא, merely a hallway before the Next World.

Often your Rebbi might be too busy for you. He might have another hundred people who he’s worried about as well. And he’s afraid to criticize you. You might just decide to go to the other shul down the block. He won’t have a shul anymore if he gets busy doing his job. I told you once, how I make a membership drive for out shul. I tell the מתפללים their faults, what needs to improve, and I end up driving them out of the shul. So if you want to really be a success, you’re going to have to search out for people who are willing to open their mouth to you. It might be an off hand comment from a stranger who passes by you on the street. Seventy years ago a black man told me something, he criticized me about a detail of my behavior, and to this day I still remember his every word. And I’m a better man because of it. It might be from your boss, or your neighbor, a fellow in your office. It might be a teacher or the man behind the counter in the store. And even though that person is not trying to help you in your עבודת השם. That black man who criticised me wasn’t trying to prepare me for Olam Habah. Not at all. But I took advantage of it. It could be that this person is just annoyed at you, and is letting you know. Or he has a big mouth. But for you it’s the most wonderful opportunity. Whatever it is, keep your ears open. And don’t just instinctively reject the criticism. Accept it, and use it to make yourself even greater.

Dovid Hamelech says בקמים עלי מרעים תשמענה אזני – “When the wicked rise up against me, let my ears hear [of their downfall]” (Tehillim 92:12). And I heard from one of my Rebbeim the following pshat in this posuk: “When the מרעים – those who want to say bad about me, those who want to criticise me and make me look bad – stand up against me, let my ears hear; let my ears hear their critique.” Not like people think today, that if someone criticizes you then he’s already your enemy. No! That’s your best friend. That’s the one to love and listen to, because that’s the person who’s going to bring you to Olam Habah.

And if you want to truly be successful in this world, you won’t wait for the off-hand comment of a neighbor, a spouse, or a rebbi. The smartest thing you can do for yourself is find someone who you can trust, and appoint him, to be your משגיח. Tell him that you want him to watch over your behavior and to let you know what needs improvement. Now, he doesn’t have to tell you everything at once; because then you’ll make sure never to see him again. But you can appoint him to find one thing a week. Even one thing a month. Try it. Get busy listening to the truth, and you’ll become a great man in no time at all.

Everyone is capable of finding a person, or persons, who he comes in contact with on a constant basis, and who sees you much better than you see yourself. If one is lucky enough to have a spouse, he or she could be the most wonderful opportunity for growth because they know you so well. Maybe you can rely on a co-worker, or a close friend. You might have to find a variety of people, each one for a different part of the day. And it doesn’t have to be done all in one fell swoop. But you have to begin somewhere.

To ignore such an opportunity is the most wicked thing you can do to yourself. And that’s because the worst possible thing you can do to yourself is to leave this world with a fault – an imperfection that you could have fixed while you were still in this world. In the Next World, it will be too late. היום לעשותם – “Today, in this world, is your only chance to accomplish” (Eiruvin 22a). And to not accomplish is a disaster. A terrible disaster because it’s forever. It’s forever and ever.

The Rambam gives us a mashal. Here you have a potter, molding his clay into a bowl. And he’s shaping it exactly the way he wants, and even adding a design around the edge. It’s in this potter’s hands to create whatever he wants. And then finally it’s ready to put into the oven to bake it hard. And once the bowl is baked solid, it’s too late to make any changes. When he takes it out and sees that he hadn’t smoothed it out properly and that he won’t be able to sell it, it’s too late. Once it goes into the oven, that’s how it will remain forever.

And you’re that same piece of pottery. Only that you’re the potter. You’re greatest accomplishment in this world is yourself. This world is your chance to make something out of yourse. When a person leaves this world, at that moment his neshama is hardened in the oven of the grave forever. It’s too late to accept any criticism, and make the changes that are so vital, so eternal. And there will be criticism! Oh yes, more than you could even begin to imagine. מאמר עומק הדין. And you’ll listen to the criticism with the deepest regret. “Why didn’t I listen to my wife?! Why didn’t I ask my Rebbi to point out my faults to me?! Why didn’t I listen?!”

And so, a wise person will be רואה את הנולד and use this world as the opportunity to make all those changes, to smooth out all of his rough edges, before it’s too late. And there will come a time when it will be too late. One day this world will come to an end for you too. And you’ll be lying in a box in the back of a hearse, and it will be a time of tremendous regret. The hearse will stop by the shul, and a man will open the door and intone the words of קל מלא רחמים, as the family gathers around to cry. And you’ll wish you could jump out of the hearse for one more opportunity to hear some criticism, and to make yourself just a little bit better. But it will be too late. And there is no Gehenim like the sadness of realizing that it’s too late. Forever.

And therefore, the best way to begin your journey toward the Next World, is by becoming aware of your faults. Now, of course, a person who studies mussar, if he studies mussar the way its supposed to be studied, will also be able to find the flaws in himself. But most people study mussar, and see just the flaws of others. This friend has this fault and this neighbor that fault. He sees his whole neighborhood in the mussar sefer – except for himself. And therefore the surest way towards knowing yourself, is listening to others when they have what to say about you, when they are pointing at you, pointing out your faults.

And so, we are expected to learn from the mistake of Lot. He was a great man, but he gave up the benefit of having a משגיח watching over him. And this means that he gave up the great opportunity of becoming better and better. All of us have faults; all of us have rough edges, flaws and imperfections that must be dealt with. And the only opportunity that you will have to work on them, is while you are still breathing in this world. And so, Avraham, the quintessential servant of Hashem, went on to his destiny, to reach greater and greater heights, and to become the progenitor of the Chosen People. And Lot, by forsaking the sharp eyes and supervision of Avraham, went on to his destiny. He spiraled downwards and went on to lose his family in Sedom, and the remnants that remained are the two forbidden nations, the two despised nations of Amon and Moav. Lot forever remained in the background of history, acting as scenery for the main actors on the world stage, the Am Yisroel. And so too, anyone who follows the example of Lot, and avoids the great achievement afforded by supervision and criticism in this world, will forever suffer the consequences by being relegated to acting as mere scenery to the main actors on the eternal stage in the Next World.

Have a wonderful Shabbos