Hashem tells Moshe Rabbeinu to speak to Pharaoh in order to have the Jewish people freed from bondage. Moshe, however, responded, “If the Jewish people did not listen to me, how will Pharoah listen to me, for after all, I am of uncircumcised [i.e., closed] lips” (Shemot 6:12). What does this expression of “closed lips” mean? The Sefat Emet explains what Moshe was intending to impart. Moshe was saying that since the Jews don’t listen to him, it’s as if he has closed lips. What good is his speech if no one is listening anyway? Hence, Moshe was saying that I can only be a leader if the Jewish people want me as their leader. In the absence of that, it’s as if my lips are closed. Thus, said Moshe, if the Jewish people don’t consider me as their leader, how can I represent myself to Pharoah as the leader of the Jewish people?
This idea applies on an individual level and on a communal level. A community that wants a leader needs to realize that their leader will be effective only as much as they are interested in being led. A community can have the most brilliant leader, with excellent people’s skills, but nothing can come out of it if the people are not motivated to listen and have the hope to change. In the absence of such, this phenomenal leader is not a leader neither in its literal or practical sense. Likewise, a person can only consider himself to have a personal Rebbe or mentor as long as he or she is willing to listen and grow. If not, this Rebbe or mentor loses this status in relation to that person.
Pirkei Avot says “make for yourself a rav.” Simply speaking, we learn to have a rebbe in order to seek life guidance and spiritual/halachic instruction. But why does Pirkei Avot use this curious terminology of “make for yourself a rav”? Seemingly it should just state “have a rav”! Perhaps we can explain based on what we are saying above. You can’t just “have a rav,” because if you don’t “make him for yourself into a rav” he is not your rav. He’s just another person in relation to you. The responsibility is on us, the people, to make our communal leaders and personal leaders into our leaders.
Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan, and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He currently learns in Eretz Yisrael, and is the author of the Sephardic Congregation of Paramus’ weekly Torah Talk. He can be reached at [email protected]