The Importance of Role Models

Dear Friends,


As we discussed in this series, we, the People of the Torah, were given the Divine mission to become a model for all the peoples of the earth. In order to fulfill this Divine mission, however, we ourselves need role models. Maimonides therefore writes:


“It is natural for a human being's thoughts and actions to be patterned after those of his friends and neighbors and for him to conduct himself in the way of his society. A person must therefore attach himself to the righteous and always sit among the sages so that he will learn from their ways.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos De'os 6:1)


A beautiful example of this approach can be found in the Book of Ruth – the story of the famous convert from Moab who joined our people and who became the great-grandmother of King David and an ancestor of the future Messiah. Ruth attached herself to the righteous and wise Naomi who was returning to the Land of Israel, as it states: “And Ruth cleaved to her” (Ruth 1:14). Ruth then said to Naomi:


“Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people, and your God is my God.” (Ruth 1:16)


Ruth later married Boaz, a leading Torah sage of the generation.


Our tradition teaches that when we attach ourselves to Torah role models, we are actually fulfilling one of the 613 mitzvos of the Torah. A source for this mitzvah can be found in the verse where Moses tells us to “love the Compassionate One, your God, to walk in all His ways and to cleave to Him” (Deuteronomy 11:22). The Midrash Sifri explain that one of the ways to cleave to the Compassionate One is to cleave to the sages and their disciples who serve as living examples of Torah – the Divine Teaching. Through this process, teaches the Talmud, we cling to the Shechinah – the Divine Presence (Kesuvos 111b).


When I was fourteen years old, I fulfilled this mitzvah by attaching myself to my rebbe, Rabbi Zevulun Leib, who was a disciple of Rav Yitzchak Hutner, the head of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin and one of the leading Torah sages of that period. My rebbe strived to live the Torah, and through his teachings, my soul heard the “song” of Torah. In fact, his yeshiva put out a record titled, “Torah Lives and Sings!”


I often spent a Shabbos or Festival with my rebbe and his family. The first occasion was when Rabbi Leib invited our class to be his guests for the Festival of Simchas Torah (the Joy of the Torah), as we would have the opportunity to spend Simchas Torah at Yeshiva Chaim Berlin. Most of the parents did not want their boys to be away from home for the Festival, but I and two others boys in the class received permission from our parents to go to our rebbe's home. My mother confessed to me that she really wanted me to be at home for Simchas Torah, but she realized that spending the Festival with my rebbe would be a valuable spiritual experience. And she was right!


The dancing with the Torah at Chaim Berlin began at midnight and lasted until dawn. I was transported to another world as I watched the rebbes at this yeshiva dancing ecstatically with their students. I was especially moved by the light and love which I saw on the faces of the rebbes, and never in my life had I experienced such joy. Weary, but elated, we walked back to my rebbe's home in the early morning, and I resolved in my heart that I wanted to spend my entire life in the world of Torah.


Another way in which I strived to cling to the wise and the righteous was through reading inspiring biographies and stories about such individuals. I would meditate on the stories I read and try to apply the insights I learned to my own life. In this way, I became a disciple of great men and women who lived in previous generations. My favorite biographies were those which also revealed their struggles, how they never stopped growing, and how they learned from their mistakes. After all, I am a human being and not an angel, and I therefore need role models who are human beings!


In this spirit, I hope to share with you in the next letter some additional stories about the Chofetz Chaim which can help us to understand how he became a beloved, respected, and “human” role model for his own generation and for the generations that followed. In this way, we can attach ourselves to the Chofetz Chaim and thereby become his spiritual children.


Much Shalom,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Teachings:


1. When we choose as our models the righteous and the wise who are living the Torah, we, the People of the Torah, can become models for all the peoples of this earth. As we shall discuss later in this series, the peoples have already learned some good things from us over the centuries; however, we will fully achieve this goal when we rededicate ourselves to fulfilling the Torah in all areas of our existence. This goal will be reached at the dawn of the messianic age, and the Prophet Zechariah expresses this vision in the following metaphor:

“Thus said the Compassionate One, God of all the hosts of creation: In those days it will happen that ten men from all the languages of the nations will take hold; they will take hold of the corner of the garment of a Jewish man, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you!’ ” (Zechariah 8:23)


2. Another way in which we cleave to the Compassionate One is through doing mitzvos. The word mitzvah is usually translated as “mandate” or “commandment”; however, another meaning of this word is “connection” or “attachment.” (The word mitzvah is related to the Hebrew word tzvas - tongs.) A mitzvah can therefore be understood as an action which connects us to the Compassionate One.


3. Even someone who is not yet on the level to serve as our role model can still have something worthwhile to teach us, as the Mishnah states: “Who is wise? One who learns from every human being” (Pirkei Avos 4:1).


4. Hazon participant Sara Rigler has written a very moving and inspiring book about her discovery of a very wise and righteous woman in the Land of Israel who became her role model. The title is “Holy Woman” – The road to greatness of Rebbetzen Chaya Sara Kramer. I highly recommend it. For information, visit:  

Hazon - Our Universal Vision