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Wednesday, 6 July 2016

What's the main role of the rabbi?

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 36

Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, fondly known as ‘Reb Chaim of Brisk,’ was one of the greatest Talmudic minds of the twentieth century.  He developed an approach to Talmud study called the ‘Brisker’ method, which analyzes Talmud in light of Maimonides’s code.  He was a Rosh Yeshiva in the famous Volozhin yeshiva and his students became founders and leaders of some of the greatest yeshivas in Israel and America today.

In Halakhic Man, the great Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik recounts that his grandfather Reb Chaim was once asked what the primary function of a rabbi is.  You would think that such an incredible scholar would have answered ‘to teach Talmud to the people,’ or ‘to provide clear and concise halachic rulings,’ or maybe even ‘to give a sermon that keeps people awake!’  But that’s not what he said.

One who hits his friend’s ear must pay him the monetary amount of one sela.
A fellow once hit his friend’s ear.  Rabbi Tuvia bar Masna sent him to stand trial before Rav Yosef, with the following enquiry: Did the Mishnah mean a Tyrian sela or a provincial sela? 
Rashi explains: A Tyrian sela was worth four zuz.  A provincial sela was worth one eighth of that value, half a zuz.
The Gemara asks: What was the end of the story?
They resolved the query based upon the dictum of Rav Yehuda, quoting Rav: Any time the word money is used in the Torah, it refers to Tyrian money.  But any rabbinic injunction refers to provincial money.
Rashi explains: For example this case, which is an amount set by the Rabbis.
The story continues: The injured man then said to Rav Yosef, “Since it’s only half a zuz, I don’t want it.  Give it to the poor!”
Afterwards, he changed his mind and said, “Actually, give it to me, and I’ll refresh myself with it!”
Rav Yosef replied, “The poor have already acquired it.  For even though there may be no poor people present, our hand is like their hand, as Rav Yehuda said, quoting Shmuel ‘Orphans do not need to sign a document requesting the court to collect their sabbatical-year loans.’  Rami bar Chama similarly taught, ‘Orphans need not sign documentation requesting the court to collect their loan, for Rabban Gamliel and his court are their father’.”

How did Reb Chaim respond when asked about the role of the rabbi? “To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor.”  Adds Rav Soloveitchik, “No religious cult is of any worth if the laws and principles of righteousness are violated and trampled upon by the foot of pride” (Halakhic Man, p.91).

The greatest kavod (honour) we can give to the Almighty is when we honour and care for His children.  No amount of Torah study outweighs the provision of goods and services for those in need.  The Baal Shem Tov would say, “Oftentimes a soul comes down into this world for the sole purpose of assisting a fellow Jew!”

And it goes without saying that helping the poor is not just the rabbi’s job.  It’s everyone’s primary function.  The rabbis are there to be our role models and guides in fulfilling our earthly mission.  

The beth din (court) of Rabban Gamliel acted like a father to these orphaned children.  That’s the model of social activism that we should all strive to emulate.  It’s not about picketing Wall Street; it’s not about grandstanding about the rights of the underdog; it’s simply about reaching out with lovingkindness to those in need.

And it goes without saying that helping the poor is not just the rabbi’s job.  It’s everyone’s primary function.  The rabbis are there to be our role models and guides in fulfilling our earthly mission.  

The more you can help those in need, the more you have accomplished your mission on Earth.  Sadly, most people think that life is about maximizing their own pleasure.  It’s not.  It’s about helping as many people as possible in the short lifetime you are granted.  Everything else is gravy.

Reach out and become a big sister or a father figure to someone who is missing that in their life!  See to it that widows are not alone on Yom Tov!  Treat the children of the poor as your own and do whatever you can to ensure they have a good education and a fruitful summer experience!

Ritual mitzvos are important.  But if they don’t culminate in acts of person-to-person righteousness, you’ve missed the point.  May you always remember why Hashem sent you here – to fill the world with lovingkindness and good deeds!

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