Each and every one of us needs a spiritual teacher and mentor, or a mashpiah, to help us maximize our soul’s potential in divine service, as it says in Ethics of the Fathers (1:6), “Make for yourself a teacher.”
Here are some of the reasons:
- The sages in the Mishnah tell us that “one cannot examine his own defects.” While the sages were referring to someone who wishes to diagnose himself with tzoraat, usually translated as leprosy, this statement is also understood allegorically and is explained that it is very difficult for us to be objective about our weaknesses (or, for that matter, about our strengths) and we often under-estimate or over-estimate what we can or cannot do. A mentor who knows us well can help us see ourselves objectively, and guide us to use our strengths and work on our weaknesses so that we grow in our Judaism.
- The Talmud tells us that “a prisoner cannot free himself from his prison.” So, too, a mentor provides us with the outside help that we need to lift ourselves up from the prison imposed upon us by our own destructive instincts.
- Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement, explains in his classic work, the Tanya, that there are two distinct souls animating the body and fighting for its dominion: an “animal soul” and a “G‑dly soul.”
The animal soul is driven by the self-centered desires of physical life, and the G‑dly soul by the selfless quest to serve G‑d.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s successor, Rabbi Dovber, explained that the animal soul has no interest whatsoever in the triumph of someone else’s animal soul; by contrast, the G‑dly soul’s only desire is that the will of G‑d be fulfilled, so it desires the success of the G‑dly soul in others as well.
When a person grapples alone with his or her spiritual ills, there is a one-on-one struggle between these two selves. But when two people get together, the animal soul of each (working by itself, independent of the other) is overwhelmed by a double onslaught of the two G‑dly souls working together.
While any good friend can help us for the reasons above, a mentor is someone who knows us well and has the wisdom of experience that makes his or her guidance that much more effective.
The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, strongly encouraged everyone to have their own personal spiritual mentor, quoting our sages who say, “One who is embarrassed cannot learn.” Therefore, he said, if you want to learn how to improve your spiritual life and standing, you must not be embarrassed to ask about and discuss all your concerns with someone who can guide you.
Watch Who Can Be My Mentor? and read Are We Objective? from our selection on Mashpia: Spiritual Mentor.