Even rabbis need to do mitzvot

Whenever I prepare my High Holyday sermons encouraging the members of my beloved congregation to do more mitzvot, holy commandments, in the coming year, I always recall a humbling incident from years ago;

It was the Friday afternoon before Simchat Torah.  Like many of my colleagues in the rabbinate and cantorate, I was exhausted.  Selichot, Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot-these are spiritually joyful and uplifting holydays, but for those of us who serve the Jewish people, emotionally and physically draining.  The final challenge, Simchat Torah approached-festive and fun, but endlessly complicated with a special dinner, Consecration of our newest religious school students, and an exuberant worship service complete with klezmer and dancing.  I was looking forward to the blessed approach of Heshvan-the month with no holidays other than the promise of Shabbat rest.

The phone rang at 3:30, I was packing up to go home for a brief shower before coming back to the synagogue.  The woman on the other end of the line sounded sad and desperate.  “Rabbi, she said, thank goodness I reached you.   We don’t live near here, in fact we live far away, but my daughter has undergone surgery at the hospital near your temple for Crohn’s Disease-her fourth surgery in four months.  Please, can you arrange for challah and juice to be brought to our room?  We never miss Shabbat and I don’t want to leave her”.   I was tired and cranky and selfish enough to think to myself-“She is not a member, they don’t live here-and besides, I’ve got enough to do.”  I did try calling the local JCC-they provide a “Shabbat kit”-but they had already closed.  I called the woman, apologized for not being able to help, and assured her that the next time she was in this predicament, we would of course be of assistance.

I hung up and stared at the phone.   I looked at my watch.  No time, I said, no time.  They are not members.  I am so tired.  I have so much to do.  I left the shul and drove to the supermarket, bought a challah and sparkling grape juice and went to the hospital.  I gingerly knocked on their door and entered.  Seated in a wheelchair was a girl of bat mitzvah age, looking nauseated and uncomfortable.  She was intubated and bandaged.  Her mother and grandparents were standing around her.   They looked up.  “I’m the rabbi you called,” I said, “I just couldn’t let you sit here in my community without a proper shabbas.  I apologize for not coming by right away.”    The mother thanked me with wet eyes, and the grandparents nodded their thanks.  I looked at the girl.  “I wish you well, a complete recovery.”  I touched her hand.  She nodded, looking drawn and pale.  I knelt in front of her.  “I also want to wish you Shabbat shalom.”  The girl nodded again.

I left the hospital grounds, feeling more awake and alive than I had in days.  The sheer joy in performing a simple mitzvah, had reinvigorated my whole being.  No one in my congregation would know-indeed, the woman and her daughter were not even affiliated Jews.  I had preached to hundreds of people over the last few weeks, but that simple mitzvah in the hospital seemed more vital, more meaningful than anything I had accomplished on the pulpit.  That night, I danced with the Torah with particular joy.  Even rabbis need to do mitzvot.

About the Author
Rabbi Douglas Sagal is currently Rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel, Rumson NJ. He has served congregations in Connecticut, Chicago, and New Jersey. He is a past president of the New Jersey Association of Reform Rabbis. Rabbi Sagal is a graduate of Wesleyan University, Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, Yale Divinity School, and is a Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute.