Spiritual Mentorship: Awakening Truth in Others

"I am not a teacher, but an awakener." -- Robert Frost

The primary goal in spiritual mentorship is not the relationship, the modeling, or the wisdom shared. I would suggest the main goal is to evoke something deep and sustainable in the other.

Consider how education scholar and author Parker Palmer, in "The Courage to Teach," writes about "Mentors Who Evoked Us":

The power of our mentors is not necessarily in the models of good teaching they gave us, models that may turn out to have little to do with who we are as teachers. Their power is in their capacity to awaken a truth within us, a truth we can reclaim years later by re-calling their impact on our lives. If we discovered a teacher's heart in ourselves by meeting a great teacher, recalling that meeting may help us take heart in teaching once more.... Mentoring is a mutuality that requires more than meeting the right teacher: the teacher must meet the right student. In this encounter, not only are the qualities of the mentor revealed, but the qualities of the student are drawn out in a way that is equally revealing (20-21).

Proper mentoring is not merely a management task but an art and a spiritual practice. It is about knowing one's true self and caring enough about another that we truly make our relational efforts about them and not about ourselves. How can we bring our full self to the encounter yet not impose our own hopes, fears, dreams, and insecurities on the other?

We don't merely "train" to be a mentor in a formal way and then follow some rule book. Rather, we strive to live as authentically as possible and be open to deep encounters and possibilities that come along the way. "Rabbi Yishmael bar Rabbi Yose taught: One who studies in order to teach, is given the means to study and to teach; and one who studies in order to practice, is given the means to study and to teach, to observe and to practice" (Avot 4:6). We don't engage in meaningful acts in order to teach, but in order to live a meaningful and impactful life of integrity.

Parker Palmer concludes:

Mentors and apprentices are partners in an ancient human dance, and one of teaching's great rewards is the daily chance it gives us to get back on the dance floor. It is the dance of the spiraling generations, in which the old empower the young with their experience and the young empower the old with new life, reweaving the fabric of the human community as they touch and turn (25).

This, of course, is true for young adults too. "Again and again, we find that teens are thirsty for the chance to be treated as adults." I recall so clearly that my most influential coaches and teachers were those who took me really seriously. They praised and critiqued me intensely. They really believed in my potential and were pained by my failures. They believed that what I did and thought really mattered. I have tried hard when working with teens and young adults to keep this in mind. We are not just investing in their future but taking them seriously right now as learners, thinkers, leaders, Jews, humans. It's about them in the now, not us in the past.

How careful must we be? Should we take risks? The sages disagree on the role of a teacher and mentor in this regard.

Raba further said: If there are two teachers of whom one gets on fast but with mistakes and the other slowly but without mistakes, we appoint the one who gets on fast and makes mistakes, since the mistakes correct themselves in time. Rav Dimi from Nehardea, on the other hand, said we appoint the one who goes slowly but makes no mistakes, for once a mistake is implanted it cannot be eradicated (Bava Batra 21a).

Rav Dimi's approach is important, that we must be risk averse in teaching and mentoring to ensure we don't make mistakes that are hard to pedagogically correct once made. However, the mainstream position here is that educators and mentors who are less risk averse and more courageous are most valuable.

In an extraordinary way, a mentor may create a benevolent string of further mentors and students. Few Westerners have heard of Dadabhai Naoroji, who helped spark the Indian movement for independence from the British Empire in 1857. However, in 1888, a young man named Mohandas Gandhi asked Naoroji if he would "kindly direct and guide me...as from a father to a child." Naoroji passed on some key ideas, such as the potential for nonviolent protest against a powerful empire, and Gandhi's implementation of that, through civil disobedience, was substantially responsible for achieving India's independence. Gandhi later noted that Naoroji had been an "inspiration" to him, and that "Dadabhai became real DADA to me."

Meanwhile, in the United States, Dr. Benjamin Mays, President of Morehouse College and a minister, came to admire Gandhi's nonviolent political actions. One day he met a family with their 14-year-old son, Martin Luther King, who quickly came to appreciate Dr. Mays' sermons. As the years went by, Dr. Mays recognized the tremendous potential of his student, and imparted to him the critical need to maintain the dignity of all people in spite of how unfairly blacks were treated, and he told him about the example Gandhi set in India. Dr. King took his mentor's sound counsel and embarked on an extraordinary civil rights career, and later called Dr. Mays a "spiritual and emotional father."

Just think what might not have happened if either of these mentors had not been there for their extraordinary pupils. While the student does not always surpass the knowledge and achievements of the mentor, it is to be hoped that the student will some day in turn mentor others who will carry on the best traditions. We dare not hold another back. The words of Ludwig van Beethoven can haunt us: "The barriers are not erected which can say to [aspiring] talents and industry, 'Thus far and no farther.'" How often have teachers and mentors held us back with unnecessary boundaries to thought and exploration! We must break free from conformity that limits the human soul.

William Arthur Ward once said it well: "The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires." The Torah comes to tell us that we are all capable of being inspired and of inspiring. May our deliberate mentorship raise us up and lift up others to new spiritual heights.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of five books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."