Vayechi III - INSTALLATION OF A RABBI
A RABBI'S INSTALLATION is an American ceremony. A spiritual leader in Eastern Europe was seldom installed. There , where the rabbi was not given a temporary contract for one, three or five years, but was presented with a k'tav rabbanut --with a contract with life tenure that was signed by all the worthies of the community--the rabbi was not officially installed, but here where the position of the rabbi is precarious and insecure, a vast number of people gather at a banquet and install him with all the pomp and ceremony that American Jewry is noted for. The question is why?
The answer may be found in a statement by the sages on a theme of the Haftorah which was recited this morning. The Haftorah deals with the succession of Solomon to the throne of his father David. The Talmud states, ein moshchin melekh ben melekh. "One does not anoint a king who is the son of a king." Ve-im tomar mipnei mah mashchu et Shlomoh ? And if you will ask why then did they anoint Solomon? (The answer is) mipnei machlokoto shel Adoniyah," because of the contention of Adoniyah" (Horiot 11b).
The Bible tells us succinctly what had transpired. "Now Adoniyah the son of Haggit exalted himself saying, 'I will be king.' And he ordered chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before him. ...And he spoke to Joab son of Zeruiah and with Abiatar the priest, and they helped and followed him" (I Kings 1:5, 7).
Thus the reason for the anointment of Solomon was to demonstrate to the entire nation that Adoniyah was an impostor and that Solomon was the rightful heir to the throne of David.
For many generations a rabbi in Israel was looked upon as a king of his community. There is a familiar saying that expresses the essence of this attitude that continues to be popular in certain quarters to this day, mahn malchei rabbanan. "Who are kings? The rabbis." The Talmud puts it even stronger when it compares them to malachei ha-sharet --to ministering angels (Nedarim 20b).
In former days, therefore, there was no need for a formal installation of a rabbi; there was no point in instituting a public celebration to declare to the people that the newly appointed rabbi is the religious and spiritual authority of the town or the city. Everyone was well aware of the traditional role of the mara de-atra --"the master of the place"--as the rabbi was generally referred to. All knew that the kissei harabbanut --"the chair of the rabbi"--was the "throne" of prophets and sages of previous generations. Seldom did anyone question his crucial position in Jewish life or dare to dipute his halakhic decisions or his spiritual guidance and advice. When an ignorant or audacious individual did anything that could be interpreted as usurping the authority of the spiritual leader, he was promptly put in his place.
The story is told of a baal-agalah --an ignorant wagoner-- who once took it upon himself to decide a matter of Jewish law, and ended up as the laughing stock of his townsmen. This is the way it happened. One Friday afternoon his wife found a needle in the entrails of a chicken she was about to cook for the Sabbath. She put on her shawl and was about to go to the rabbi to ask whether the chicken was kosher or not. As she rushed by her husband, he asked where she was going, and she told him the sad tale. Whereupon the wagoner said, "It is late. Let me see the needle and perhaps I may be able to decide this matter for you." He took the needle, examined it carefully in the light of the sun, and said to his wife, "I am sure that the chicken is kosher. You see, the needle is clean and hasn't even a speck of rust on it, and all is therefore fine." That Sabbath the wife boasted on her husband's erudition to anyone who would listen. Before long the story reached the ears of the rabbi. The next day, the venerable man, dressed in his rabbinic garb, appeared in the yard of the baal-agalah and began to examine the horses. He slapped one gently on the side and said it was a good horse; another one he locked into the mouth and declared it to be worthless for its teeth were bad; the third horse, he said, should be sold, for it was skinny and lame. The wagoner watched the rabbi in amazement, and finally said, "Rabbi, since when did you be come a mavin --a connoisseur--on horses? I thought that your competence was with books on Jewish law!" To which the rabbi responded, "I became an expert on horses at the time that you became an expert on Jewish law. If you promise to stay away from passkenen shaylos --from deciding matters of Jewish law--I promise to stop acting as a mavin on your horses."
An installation of a rabbi in our time is an occasion to proclaim to all, that there is but one mara de-atra ; that people in different trades and professions are neither intellectually nor morally equipped to decide matters of Jewish law.
There is yet another reason for such a ceremony these days. There are, alas, many Adoniyahus --false prophets, imposters and frauds--who challenge the authority of the authentic rabbi. Audaciously and with impudence befitting the classical am-haaretz, they ascend the throne of David and claim it as their own. Because of the pernicious machlokot of modern Adoniyahus, it is prudent to declare to the community, "Your rabbi is entitled to occupy the chair of David because he believes in the God, Torah, people and land of David. The teachings of your rabbi are derived from eternal, undiluted and unpolluted font of Israel. Give your support, and let him lead you le-hagdil Torah ule-haadirah --to raise the banner of Torah and to give it power.