You Are Someone’s Rebbe

To become a rebbe means, b’hokhmah bitvunah u-veda’at, through wisdom, understanding, and knowledge (Exodus 35:31), to cultivate and to serve God’s creatures. As rebbes, we assist by (a) embodying the values and practices that Judaism holds dear and (b) by sharing our own journey through life with other people, our talmidim. Only by opening ourselves—flawed and striving—to another person’s gaze do we express Judaism’s conviction that people can change (and improve) and that imperfect people are worthy of love (our own and God’s). Judaism does not demand perfection; but it does reject falsehood. Living between the unattainable and the unacceptable, we turn to Judaism as a tool for our own refinement and redemption. In the words of the Rambam, “what is essential is striving to elevate one’s soul toward God through the Torah.”

The basic structure of Judaism—forging a relationship with God through the mitzvot—links God’s love to our practice, assuring us that Jewish observance provides a sacred path for personal growth.  Given the premise that God is loving and that the Torah reflects the mutual love between God and the Jewish people, one can only deduce that the mitzvot are offered for our benefit and our refinement. In the act of doing, the Jew learns to become greater than before. We act like holy beings, and, in the process, remake ourselves in God’s image.

It turns out, then, that Jewish theology anticipates modern theories of teaching and mentoring in its assumption that practice does make perfect. In the words of the medieval rabbi Aaron Ha-Levi,

Know that a person is influenced in accordance with his actions. One’s heart and all one’s thoughts are always [drawn] after the deeds in which one is occupied, whether good or bad. … For after one’s acts is the heart drawn.

Character is not engraved in stone. Working with the more malleable stuff of humanity, a life of Jewish learning and observance offers a ladder of perfectibility. After evaluating our own foibles and shortcomings, we may choose to focus on precisely those mitzvot that will best remedy our own flaws. More generally, by immersing ourselves in a literature of righteousness and compassion, by training ourselves to place God at the center and to respond to God’s mitzvot, we may hope to make such responsiveness second nature. When we repeat, over and over, the deeds of lovingkindness that form the backbone of Jewish behavior, we gradually wean ourselves of our selfish sinfulness and begin to approach a more wholesome holiness. In the words of the Rambam, “From one’s youth, one becomes accustomed to acting in accordance with the accepted behavior of family and locale (Shemonah Perakim).”   If our family is Am Yisrael, the Jewish people, and our locale is the Torah, then we can hope to accustom ourselves to very high standards indeed.

This recognition that we habituate ourselves, that we do have the power to mold our character, expresses Judaism’s fundamentally hopeful and positive assessment of human potential. Humans are not born evil, nor are they tainted by sinfulness as a pervasive condition. Instead, Judaism holds each of us responsible for our deeds precisely because it insists on our ability to be the captains of our souls. Far from reflecting a simple naivete, Jewish tradition fully recognizes that people have the capacity for good and for evil, that we oscillate between our Yetzer ha-tov (a good inclination) and our Yetzer ha-ra (an evil inclination).  The goodness within is only a potential, one that requires diligent effort to become manifest: “although saintliness is latent in the character of every normal person, yet without cultivation it is sure to remain dormant… [it is] not so innate as to enable people to dispense with the effort needed to develop it (Luzzatto, Mesillat Yesharim)

It turns out, then, that molding character is not only a possibility, it is a mitzvah. Fashioning ourselves into truer reflections of the divine image is itself service of the Divine. And because it is possible to train ourselves toward goodness, sensitivity and godliness, it is also possible to open ourselves to becoming rebbes—through the guidance and examples of rebbes of our own, and through the written legacy they leave for us.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson ( is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President. He is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions (Alef Design).