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Thought for the Day: עשה לך רב/Make Yourself a Rav

A young man once asked R' Moshe if he should remove his yarmulke when going to a movie theater to minimize the חילול השם.  R' Moshe, in a characteristic simple response that addressed the real question and gave a direction for life, answered: Of course you need to wear your yarmulke at all times.  If  you want to avoid a חילול השם, then don't go to the movie theater.

For a few years, I taught computers at Telshe Yeshiva High School.  The bochurim wanted to call my "Rabbi Allen".  I adamantly refused; since I was not a rabbi, it would be a degradation of the title.  The only solution (and only a stopgap one, at that), was to allow them to call me "Dr. Allen".  You should know, though, that being addressed as "Dr." was very difficult for me.  In graduate school we had made fun of the medical doctors who were so impressed by their own title, that they even call each other "Dr."  When I received Ph. D., I saw that the diploma included the phrase, "and all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto".  You can Google that phrase to discover precisely what rights and privileges come with the conference of a Ph. D. if you like, but the basic answer is that they are all listed on the back.  (Which is, of course, blank.)  I never allowed that title to be put on any business cards because I felt it didn't really say anything more about me other than I like physics and I finish what I start.  Not  a bad thing for an employee, but certainly not something that should be listed as a source of pride.

So that was the situation.  I heard "Dr. Allen" and gritted my teeth.  Occasionally I heard "Rabbi Allen" and felt compelled to correct (again and again); "No, I am not a rabbi."  The situation was becoming untenable and there was only one solution: become a rabbi.  Easier said than, done, of course.  My father, a"h, had often asked me why I didn't become a rabbi.  After all, he reasoned, I knew a lot (in his estimation).  I tried to explain that I really didn't know that much and that it takes years of intense study to become a rabbi.  Still, I approached several yeshivos and kollelim asking about a program for working stiffs to earn rabbinic ordination.  None had such a program; some thought it wasn't a bad idea, the rest didn't see a need.

It was suggested that I contact R' Shmuel Fuerst, Dayan of Agudas Yisrael, Chicago.  Even that long ago I had a close relationship with R' Fuerst and, turned out, R' Fuerst had given סמיכה/ordination once before.  R' Fuerst handed me a 60 question exam (closed book, of course) covering topics from all over Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, as elucidated by the Mishna Brura.  I worked diligently for a about a month and hesitantly submitted my work to the dayan.  "Hesitantly", because working on the exam has brought me face to face with the fact that I had a lot to learn.  The dayan was very busy, so his reading of the exam kept getting pushed back; I was not thrilled with my performance, so I didn't push.  After that, though, I redoubled my efforts at studying and really understanding the Mishna Brura.  I would often call the dayan to clarify this or that issue.

Fast forward several years.  I finally felt prepared to take the exam with confidence.  I approached the dayan and told him that I had been reviewing (not news to him, Baruch HaShem) and was preparing to submit my rework of the exam.  R' Fuerst looked at me and said, "Michael, I trust you.  You don't need to take the exam again."  Emboldened, I said,"As the rabbi knows, I originally asked for the exam because I wanted סמיכה..."  R' Fuerst smiled broadly and said, "Oh!  You want your piece of paper."  (I felt a bit like the scarecrow in Wizard of Oz; yes, I wanted my piece of paper.)

Motzai Shabbos, 9 Shvat, 5777, I walked to the dayan's house with my wife and -- as we both watched -- R' Shmuel Fuerst, Dayan Agudas Yisrael, signed our paper: סמיכת חכמים: רב ומנהיג

We are told by Chazal (Avos 2:6):...יהושוע בן פרחיה אומר עשה לך רב/Yehushua ben P'rachya says, Make yourself a rav.  One explanation is that one must have a relationship with a rav and make him your main source of halacha, method of learning, and outlook.  The other is that one must learn enough to make oneself into a rav himself.  Truth be known, those are two sides of the same coin.  One cannot become a rav without having  rav  himself; a mentor from whom to learn how to study a question and how to weigh the many human sides of any halachic question.  By the same token, if one has a close relationship with his rav, then he cannot help but be inspired to be like his rav, so much so that he aspires to become a rav himself.


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