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Answers about Questions "A"
A Primer on Seeking Da'as Torah
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

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11/22/06

Answers about Questions

A Primer on Seeking Da'as Torah

HADRACHA – ABOUT HADRACHA

It is a wonderful expression of the Torah community's reverence for Da'as Torah that we consult with our gedolim and rabbanim before making significant decisions.

I have found, though, that one of the areas where proper hadrocha (guidance) is most needed these days is in the area of getting proper hadrocha. There is a significant amount of confusion and misinformation about how to prepare for, frame, ask, and listen to guidance from a Rav, Moreh Derech, or Gadol. And, in this increasingly complex world in which we live, getting proper Da’as Torah is more important that ever.

In my twenty-five years in chinuch, and much more so, in the nine years since Project Y.E.S. and Yeshiva Darchei Noam were founded, I have met with and spoken to hundreds of couples who have presented chinuch and parenting issues to their Rabbanim and Roshei Yeshiva.

From this vantage point, patterns emerge which suggest that certain pointers and adequate preparation can make the experience a more productive and fulfilling one. Hopefully, these lines will provide you, the reader, with suggestions that will help you seek the advice of our gedolim and morei derech in a manner that is helpful and productive.

I write these lines having had the privilege of spending a few precious months under the close tutelage of the great Rabbi Moshe Sherer z’tl, President of Agudas Yisroel, as Project Y.E.S. was founded during the sunset of his illustrious life. Rabbi Sherer patiently guided me as I consulted with Gedolim and maneuvered through the many complex issues we faced where Da’as Torah was urgently needed.

I have also had the zechus to have the guidance and Da’as Torah of my great rebbi, Rav Avrohom Pam z’tl, and, yibodel l’chayim, that of Reb Shmuel Kaminetsky s’hlita, who served as the Moreh Derech for Project Y.E.S. for the past nine years. Listening to their sage advice often reminded me of the words written about those who were present in the court of Shlomo Hamelech, “Ashrei anoshecha … ha’omdim lifonecha tomid, hashomim es chochmasecha – Fortunate are your men … who stand before you constantly, who hear your wisdom” (Melachim Alef, 9:8).

It is my humble wish that these lines will help you in your quest for that which we daven for each day in the ma’ariv tefilah; “v’sakneinu b’eitzah tovah milifanecha (Set us aright with good counsel from before You)”

PREPARING TO ASK

Before going to a gadol, ask yourself: Which of the following am I seeking: a bracha, a p’sak or an eitzah?

There are important distinctions between these three very different requests for da’as Torah. (Please see the accompanying article by Rabbi Chaim Feuerman s’hlita, an outstanding mechanech to whom I regularly turn to for eitzos, for an in-depth analysis of these three distinctly different matters.)

• A brachais a request for an Adam Gadol to wish you success in whatever you have already made up your mind to do.

• Looking for a p'sak (halacha) means ascertaining what the halacha requires you to do in a particular instance.

• Seeking an eitzah is a highly-personalized request for guidance; a very complex procedure. This will be the main focus of this article.

GETTING A BRACHA

Seeking a bracha is a rather straightforward procedure. You set a time to visit the gadol, and inform him what you are about to do: (I am starting a business venture, my daughter is about to become a kallah, we decided to make aliyah). You then ask the gadol for a bracha, and upon receiving one, you feel comforted that you the zechus to have a gadol bless your actions.

SEEKING AN EITZAH

The quest for an eitzah is an entirely different matter. In this case, you are asking a gadol to advise you which course of action to take when you have two or more halachically and morally permissible options. (If you are questioning the halachic appropriateness of your options, you are seeking a p’sak – a very different matter entirely.)

If it is an eitzah you are looking for, there are many issues that need to be clarified before you go to a Gadol to seek his advice:

• Do I really know what it is that I want – am I properly prepared to ask for the eitzah?

• Is the setting correct for me to discuss this matter properly with him?

• Do I have the proper amount of time for this type of discussion?

• Is there a language barrier with the Gadol with whom I wish to speak? And, if so, will it be possible for me to get proper guidance?

• Will he understand that I want an eitzah – and not a bracha?

• How well does the Gadol know me? And, if he does not know me well, how can I give him a sense of who I am?

• How much information does he need in order to understand my request for an eitzah properly?

• Is he the right person to ask this question? Is this question within his area of expertise?

• Will I be completely comfortable sharing all details of the request for an eitzah with this gadol?

• Finally; am I completely open to listening to what he will tell me? To help yourself get in touch with your own feelings, ask yourself which of these three scenarios fit you inclination regarding the decision you are about to make?

1. My mind already (or just about) made up

2. I am leaning to one option more than another, but still unsure

3. I completely uncertain what to do

It is important to understand that it is appropriate to approach a gadol with any of these three thoughts. But it is important for YOU and THE GADOL to know where you stand, as it will impact your framing of the question – and the eitzah that you receive from him.

Once you are ready to present your request for an eitzah, here are some practical tips:

PREPARE PROPERLY

Prepare properly for your discussion. Compile a list of the questions that you want answered and frame your questions well. In my personal and professions lives, whenever I have sought the eitzah of a Gadol, I have found that preparing for the meeting was also extremely helpful in clarifying my own thoughts.

A very important component of your preparation is collecting all relevant information to help the gadol provide you with an eitzah. Consider the following incident that occurred with the Gerer Rebbi many years ago, as related by Rabbi Yehudah Rabinowitz, in his sefer, Kerem Chemed on Meseches Brachos (page 23)

A businessman came to the Imrei Emes for advice concerning a business deal. The Imrei Emes asked about the pros and cons of pursuing this venture, but the man did not have all the information.

The Imrei Emes replied that he had no advice for the man, either.

“It says in the Gemara that a person should take counsel from Achitofel, consult with the Sanhedrin and then ask the Urim Vetumim,” he explained. “That means that first one should get expert advice, then ascertain whether the matter is muttar or assur and only afterward ask direction from ruach hakodesh” – meaning from the Rebbe.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

Please share background information that the gadol will need to know in order to understand your request for an eitzah. If you are a close talmid of your Rosh Yeshiva, or a chossid of a particular Rebbi, you may assume that the Gadol knows you well. But if this is not the case, please see to it that you afford him a window into your life in order to properly address your request.

I would also strongly suggest that you begin with an introductory sentence or two that will clearly articulate what it is that you wish the Gadol to address.

Some examples:

  • We would like an eitzah regarding the possibility of our family making aliyah
  • We were given certain advice regarding our teenage son. We would like to share them with the Rosh Yeshiva and get his guidance.
  • I am about to leave Kollel and enter the business world. Can the Rav give me a bracha?

To give you the perspective of someone on the other side of the table (or shtender); when parents call me for advice regarding an at-risk teen, for example, I rarely find out what it is that they wish from me until they make their closing request. (Are they looking for a school placement recommendation, a referral for a therapist, help in deciding if they should take the young man out of yeshiva and send him to work, or any of many other possibilities?) Having this introductory information at the beginning of our conversation would reduce my level of concern and allow me to concentrate better on the parts of the discussion that are most relevant to their request. (I try to begin the conversation by gently inquiring what it is that the person(s) came to request of me, but some people get flustered, thinking that I am rushing them).

THE PROPER SETTING IS CRITICAL

I would venture to say that most of my friends who are in their 40’s and 50’s would not be able to maintain the punishing schedule of our Gedolim for one week, let alone for years on end. Our Roshei Yeshiva and senior Rabbonim, most of them well past retirement age, are overburdened with the demands of their mosdos and the needs of the Klal. (See Shiya Markowitz’s excellent article on the need to protect and preserve our gedolim, “Torah Leadership: A National Resource or Public Property?” JO, Feb. ‘92.))

I do not have any suggestions to remedy this situation, but it is important that you understand that if you wish to seek the guidance of the top tier of our gedolim, you should consider finding the proper setting for a discussion that will allow you yishuv hadaas (reflective time).

Call the Rosh Yeshiva and ask for an appointment. Travel to his yeshiva if that works best for him. ‘Catching’ a Gadol in a noisy wedding hall simply is not good practice. In all likelihood, if you do meet in a hectic setting, he may logically assume that you are seeking a bracha, and you may walk away thinking that you received an eitzah.

LANGUAGE

Consider the language and comfort level factor when preparing to present your request for an eitzah. Are you fluent in the language of the Gadol, and are you completely comfortable discussing every aspect of this matter with him? Often asking for an eitzah requires you to share highly personal matters and feelings with an Adam Gadol – something that is quite difficult to do. Bear in mind that there are some Gedolim with whom you may have a greater comfort level, and it may be wiser to seek their assistance.

My chaver Rabbi Yosef Chaim Golding, who currently serves as Managing Editor of The Jewish Observer, shared with me a poignant story regarding a Gadol’s approach to providing an eitzah when the presenter had a language barrier.

In the early years of JEP (Jewish Education Program) in the late 1970's, Rabbi Mutty Katz and he met with Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky z’tl to pose several sheilos regarding working with Jewish public school, and other assimilated JEP children.

Rabbi Golding, who was not perfectly fluent in Yiddish, asked Rav Yaakov if he could ask the questions in English.

Rav Yaakov shook his head, no, and pointed to one of the Rebbeim present in the room. “Ask your Sheilos to him in English", said Rav Yaakov," and then he will translate them to me into Yiddish.

Before answering, Rav Yaakov asked Rabbi Golding if the translator presented the questions correctly and only then did he respond with his answers.

It is important to note that the language barrier may not make much difference in the case of a bracha, but it is very relevant in the case of an eitzah. Permit me to be so bold as to say that it is nearly impossible to get a proper eitzah if there is a significant language barrier. In fact, one of the reasons that the members of the Sanhedrin needed to be fluent in all seventy languages was to insure that they would properly understand the words – and nuances – of the witnesses and litigants who appeared before them.

ALL PARTIES PRESENT

One final point on setting and preparation for a request for an eitzah: It is good practice for all parties to be present, if possible, when the request is posed. If, for example, parents are requesting hadracha for raising their child, I feel that both parents should be present when speaking to the gadol – even though the father may have a greater comfort level speaking to him.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the gadol may have probing questions that will help him better understand the facts on the ground. And to be perfectly candid, mothers are usually more in tune with the needs and realities of their children. Additionally, on a very practical level, these types of eitzos require tough calls to be made. Hearing the eitzah firsthand often provides a greater comfort level for the mother and makes her feel more empowered in the process of the request for the eitzah.

AREA OF EXPERTISE

Imagine the following scenario that requires you to seek an eitzah:

You are a very successful real-estate developer. In order to inspire the confidence of your investors, banking officials, and potential sellers who want to be sure that you can 'close the deal', it is important that you wear expensive suits and drive a very luxurious automobile.

It would be entirely proper and appropriate for you to consult with your Rosh Yeshiva and ask him if it is congruous with your hashkofos (Torah value system) to display such conspicuous consumption. But it would be foolish and pointless to ask a Gadol if you should buy or lease, or if you ought to look into a Cadillac or a Lexus!

I purposely used an extreme example to illustrate my point that Gedolim should not be asked questions that are outside their sphere of knowledge. But there are many more subtle instances where Gedolim are asked to give eitzos in arenas that are far outside the area of their expertise. (Please see the accompanying article by Rabbi Chaim Feuerman s’hlita, for a powerful story about the Steipler Gaon that illustrates this concept.)

Take chinuch matters, for example. Some Gedolim and Roshei Yeshiva are very knowledgeable about learning disabilities and courses of action to remediate them. Many are not. That does not diminish their status as Gedoliei Olam. It just means that they are not experts in the area and therefore not the best ones to consult with if you have a child with a significant disability.

Another example would be in the arena of ‘at-risk teens.’ There are many eitzsos that could and should be asked of our Gedolim and sheilos asked of a posek when one is raising a teenager who is going through a difficult phase (see following paragraphs). However, this does not mean that the Gadol or Rav has a deep understanding of clinical depression, chemical addictions or compulsive gambling.

THE PROPER SEQUENCE

Please note that I am not suggesting that a Gadol should not be consulted to guide parents and mechanchim. They most certainly should – after all relevant information to frame the question has been gathered.

In one of the examples noted above regarding the child with a learning disability, the proper course of action for parents would be to have the child tested for disabilities by a competent and professionally trained expert. The next step should be for the parents to explore all options as to choices for meeting the educational needs of this child. Armed with this information, the parents should then consult with a Rav/Gadol for an eitzah.

A proper sequence of action would result in informed parents asking thoughtful and appropriate eitzos:

  • We did our homework and the best educational setting for my child is to attend a Yeshiva setting with children who are exposed to secular culture far more than our children, or l’ehavdil, spend 45 minutes each day learning to read in specialized program in the local public school. What is more important; ‘chevrah’ or a better educational setting?
  • Our son suffers from clinical depression. The doctors say that we should not be putting pressure on him while he is in therapy. Should we be waking him for minyan if he resists our efforts to do so? How about asking him to put on tefilin? How do we balance his needs with our value system at home and his influence on our younger children?

WHY DON’T THEY TELL US THAT?

You may respond to these last few paragraphs with a reasonable question: If I ask a gadol for an eitzah in an area outside his expertise, why won’t he simply tell me to seek advice elsewhere?

The answer is that they usually do (tell you to go elsewhere for advice). I have noticed, however, that the majority of people either do not understand what they are being told and get frustrated at what they perceive to be a polite brush-off, or simply do not take no for an answer.

One of my close friends recently related to me that he once called Morei V’Rabi Horav Avrohom Pam z’tl to discuss the High School placement of his teenage daughter. Rav Pam listened for a while, offered him some general advice, and suggested that he contact someone who knows his daughter and would be more knowledgeable about the local High School options for girls. My chaver told me that he felt disappointed at first, not getting the answer he was seeking. After reflection, however, he realized that he had asked my rebbi a question that was beyond the area of his experience.

Additionally, some people are simply in too much pain to be that understanding. Take the case of desperate parents who go to a Rosh Yeshiva for help with a rebellious teenager and are basically told that he cannot help them other than to empathetically listen and offer them a bracha – and perhaps a referral. “But you are the Gadol Hador,” they think. How could you not be able to help us? If not you, then who can help us?

The simple answer (or question) is: How should he be able to help you al regel achas (in the course of one session) – and without meeting with your child? The circumstances that led to this teenage defiance did not appear overnight and will, in all likelihood take months or years to remediate – even in the hands of a trained professional.

Our caring, devoted Gedolim deeply understand their role and carry the burden of the Klal magnanimously. They are sensitive human beings who are also parents and grandparents. They truly are nosei ba’ol (empathize with you and share your pain) and feel equally frustrated when you ask them for an eitzah that they cannot assist you with.

It is of utmost importance that you therefore clarify what it is that you wish from a Gadol before you make the appointment – and see to it that you have a realistic set of objectives that match the skill set of the Gadol or Rav.

INDIVIDUAL NATURE – AND OWNERSHIP – OF AN EITZAH

Another area where guidance is helpful in the arena of requesting hadrocha is developing an understanding of the individual nature – and ownership – of your requests.

To begin with, you cannot “pasken from a psak” – assume that the guidance given to one family can be automatically be extrapolated to address the needs of any other family.

Additionally, it is vitally important to understand that the guidance given to the klal is by nature very different than that which is tailored for an individual. And it is the obligation of the individual – or those acting on behalf of that individual – to reflect upon, and if needed, pose the personalized request for an eitzah.

Take the issue of full-time learning for a bachur or yungerman, for example. Virtually all Rabbonim and Gedolim in the Yeshiva world will advocate for full-time learning for bachurim, and, to varying degrees, for yungerleit after their wedding. At the same time, the vast majority of our gedolim will suggest a part-or-full-time school or work environment for young men above a certain age who are clearly not cut out for full-time learning. In fact, many of our leading gedolim have made similar adjustments for their own children, grandchildren and sons of their closest talmidim. My point is that it is the sacred obligation of parents to assess each of their children as individuals and help them chart a course for their lives that is appropriate for them. And it is the parents who should be asking the requests for eitzos on behalf of their children. In a similar vein, it is the responsibility of each couple to closely and carefully assess their family unit and, when needed, ask for an eitzah or a p’sak from their Rov regarding matters that are highly personal in nature.

IN CLOSING

Maintaining a kesher with one’s rebbi is an obligation on the individual, as the Mishnah clearly states Asei l’cha Rav (Accept upon yourself a Rav, Avos, 1:6). With the exponential growth of the size of our largest yeshivos, it is more important than ever for each person and family to nurture and maintain a close bond with a Rav or Rosh Yeshiva. Doing so will enable you to get the eitzos (and brachos) you will need as you travel on life’s journey and seek to fulfill your dreams.

© 2005 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved



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