Awe of God: Relationship With One’s Teacher
Rav Chisda said: Whoever disputes his teacher, it is as though he disputes the Divine Presence, as it is stated (Bamidbar 26:9): “When they incited against God”, Rabbi Chama bar Chanina said: Whoever causes a dispute with his teacher, it is as though he causes a dispute with the Divine Presence, as it is stated (Bamidbar 20:13): “They are the waters of dispute, where the children of Israel contended with God”. Rabbi Chanina bar Papa said: Whoever complains against his teacher is as though he complains against the Divine Presence, as it is stated (Shemot 16:8): “Not against us are your complaints, but against God!” Rabbi Abahu said: Whoever is suspect of his teacher, it is as though he is suspect of the Divine Presence, as it is stated (Bamidbar 21:5): “The people spoke out against God and against Moshe.” (Midrash Tanchuma, Korach #10)
At first glance, it seems that the Midrash is warning us about the severity of arguing with one’s teacher. “Whoever disputes his teacher, it is as though he disputes the Divine Presence”; meaning, opposing one’s teacher is such a serious transgression that it is equated with the critical offense of opposing God.
But maybe, in addition to stressing their condemnation of acts of disrespect towards one’s teacher, our Sages are also pointing us towards the source of this behavior.
The expression “it is as though”, might imply that the way we relate to our teacher, or Rebbi, reflects how we are relating to God at that moment. [Let us note that the Midrash is not speaking of any Rabbi, but of one’s designated Rebbi; the master and guide one has chosen to help him or her develop one’s relationship with God.]
When we are struggling with life events and feel that our spiritual growth is strained, we might feel angry towards God. We might feel the urge to engage in a dispute, we might feel like complaining about what we perceive as being unjust, we might even harbor doubts about how trustworthy God is. Yet, we are often too scared to recognize those feelings, let alone to express them. It is much safer for us to argue, complain and suspect our Rebbi’s judgement. We refuse to see ourselves as capable of questioning God’s authority, and so instead, we question the authority figure who represents the direction of our relationship with God.
This powerful Midrash urges us to acknowledge our patterns of behavior. When I am fighting my Rebbi, who am I really fighting? Remember that the way one relates to a Sage and Master is a powerful tool to develop one’s awe of God (see Awe of God: Honoring the Presence of A Sage
). It is only through honest introspection and by delving into the root of our actions that we can begin to fix them.