Sunday mornings will never be the same again. For over three decades – except for the years when I was away from Toronto – I attended an informative and inspiring weekly class on Jewish law. That ritual came to an abrupt end with the sudden death of my teacher, Rabbi Reuven Silver, a few days before Passover.
Rabbi Silver was a unique person. Although he didn’t have an official pulpit position, he ministered to a congregation of faithful followers. Even when he wasn’t affiliated with an educational institution, he regularly taught classes and developed loyal students. Most significantly, many individuals considered Rabbi Silver to be their rebbe.
The concept of a rebbe isn’t widely understood. It is usually associated with Hasidic groups. The rebbe is the leader of the community, someone who understands the needs of every member and, in many cases, is said to possess mystical powers. However, it is not something unique to Hasidism. Every serious Orthodox Jew has a rebbe. It is based on the dictate in Ethics of the Father to “make for yourself a rabbi.”
The idea is to have someone wise and knowledgeable to answer questions about observance and Torah, and provide guidance. The extent to which one consults with a rebbe varies greatly among Orthodox Jews. Some will not make a move without first speaking to their spiritual mentor, while others will only ask technical questions, or about major issues.
Many people chose Rabbi Silver to be their rebbe, because of his vast knowledge of Torah, understanding of human nature and ability to relate to many different types of people. The Sunday morning class attracted Ashkenazim and Sephardim, men with black hats and those wearing knitted kippot, and even a member of a Conservative synagogue. The group included professionals, business people, entrepreneurs and others.
Although Rabbi Silver only taught classes to men, he understood the woman’s perspective very well. I once mentioned to a friend that when my wife and I had differences of opinions on issues and asked Rabbi Silver to be the final arbiter, he sided with my wife most of the time. My friend responded by saying that his experience was the same.
In the weeks that have passed since Rabbi Silver died, I have realized more and more that it is not only Sundays that will never be the same. Numerous times – while preparing for Pesach, experiencing the holiday or doing other things – I have found myself acting the way the rebbe taught me to. I’ve also caught myself thinking that I needed to call him about something. A feeling of sadness washes over me when I quickly realize that I can no longer speak to him.
I am fortunate to be connected with other learned and wise rabbis who can answer my difficult questions and share beautiful insights into the Torah with me. However, losing Rabbi Silver is like losing a close family member. Having other relatives can help you to move on, but they will never replace what you have lost.
I don’t know yet what the other members of the class are going to do on Sunday mornings. However, it’s a safe bet that, based on the rebbe’s influence and inspiration, they will use the time to develop themselves spiritually.