There were three rabbis who deeply influenced me as a young man: my director at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, my Hillel director at Washington University and the rabbi of my hometown synagogue. All three were marvelous role models, learned men and righteous Jews. My hometown family rabbi, Rav Bill Lebeau, would often talk to me after Shabbat morning services. One morning, after shul, he took me into his office and told me that he wanted me to be a rabbi. He told me that he wanted me to be his colleague. I truly was touched and as I thanked my wonderful rabbi I thought inwardly … not for me!
When I got home my mother said to me, “Nu, what did the rabbi have to say?” I told her, and concluded by telling her that Rabbi Lebeau is a nice man, but he doesn’t know much! Many years later, at a retreat for rabbis, I told this story to my colleagues … in the presence of Rabbi Lebeau!
That moment changed my life forever. Someone who I looked up to took a deep interest in me and felt I could truly be a rabbi and teacher amongst the people of Israel. As I reflect back, I am profoundly moved by the ability of one person to influence another and to touch their soul. I probably would have found my way to the rabbinate, but this man’s perceptiveness and desire to enrich the Jewish world allowed him to speak to me instead of running home to lunch.
I don’t think that my rabbi is a prophet, nor can he read minds, but I believe that not only is he a good judge of character, but he was able to look into my soul and speak to it.
As parents, rabbis and teachers we often look to influence our children, congregants and students. But I think we err by only appealing to the mind and not the heart; we think about what is good for the body but neglect the soul. A number of years ago I was introduced to the teachings of Rabbi Kalman Kalonymus Shapira, the Piaseczner Rebbe. In the 1920s, well before the Shoah and his tragic death in the Warsaw ghetto, he formulated a theory of education based upon reaching the insides, the soul, of a student. “The educator who wishes to reveal the hidden soul of his student … must bend down toward his student … to reach inside … until he arrives at the hidden spark of his soul … to cause it to grow and flower.”
In other words, if we really wish to touch someone, and to teach them, we must go beyond the facts and stories we are trying to teach. As we teach and parent, we must always keep our eye on the soul. I find that when I sing with my family, when I sing when I teach, some melodies go straight toward the soulprint of who we are — our spiritual DNA.
My God, bless us with marvelous teachers who awaken our love for God and mankind, by touching our souls.
Rabbi David Ebstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bet Shalom.