Some years ago I spoke at a rabbinical convention about how rabbis see ourselves at various stages in our careers. I called the first stage, “I want to change the world.” Stage two: “I want to touch your soul.” Three: “Wow! I can make a difference!” Four: “What’s it all about?” And, five: “Integration.”
In the “I want to change the world” stage, I was ready to unpack and transmit everything I had learned in rabbinical seminary and make every congregant a maximalist Jew. I wanted to change the Jewish people and the world in one clean sweep. I had so much to teach, so many good ideas, if people would only listen.
As young rabbis, we believe that our incredibly wise ideas can reshape Judaism and the Jewish people. As we mature, we realize that our presence is more important than our ideas, and our compassion more important than defending faith and tradition. We recognize that we inherit the teachings of those who came before us, who were wise in their time, and from whom we learned. We honor that wisdom, even as we seek to share and reshape it for our generation and transmit it to the next.
The rabbi then discovers that there are other issues in the garden of Judaism, in the lives of vulnerable human beings. The rabbi begins to own the role of pastor and enters the stage of: “I want to touch your soul.” We are not just enactors of rituals and ceremonials, preachers of theology and ethics, but spiritual counselors, whose caring and appropriate words and gestures, whose loyal presence and nurturing, can help to “ease the burden” and “double the joys” of our congregants.
The title “rabbi” means teacher. As I was graduating college, I seriously considered pursuing an academic career, but I soon realized that it was being with people gathered for prayer, celebration and memory, for the performance of acts of justice and mercy, that most compelled me. I cherish my continued involvement in higher education, in history, research, and publishing. But I prefer being a mentor, a guide, and fellow traveler with the Jews of today. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan reminded us: “The rabbi should not be a walking sarcophagus of dead ideas about religion, but an interpreter of the experiences …. of religion that are understandable and relevant.”
No one taught us in seminary what to do when catastrophes like 9/11 devastated our sense of security, when swastikas appeared on college dorms, when antisemitism, anti-Zionism, racism, homophobia, and Islamophobia run rampant. And yet we must find the words and be the presence that channels anxiety, acknowledges grief, and calls forth human dignity.
With the passing of years, the rabbi becomes a leader in the broader community, with growing influence, sometimes drawing strong reactions. One of my rabbinic mentors warned me – “Some people will love you without reason and some will hate you without cause. Be yourself. You will know when you have done well and when you have not.” Inscribed on the walls of the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv is a quote of Rabbi Israel Salanter, a 19th century teacher of Jewish ethics: “A rabbi whose community can never agree with him cannot be their rabbi; but a rabbi who never disagrees with his community is not fit to be a rabbi.”
There will be stressful times when a rabbi questions ideals and vocation, moments of frustration and doubt, cynicism and potential burnout. This is the “what’s it all about?” stage. Some may leave the rabbinate, for others, questioning and struggle become opportunities for personal depth and professional growth.
Then, you remember…
…you remember the love in the faces of new parents holding in their arms a newborn and praying for a long life of health and joy.
…you remember standing on the bimah next to a nervous 13-year-old, offering words of encouragement and blessing.
…you remember the times under the huppah with a young couple with whose parents you had stood under the wedding canopy a generation before, celebrating the chain of tradition and the rebirth of love from generation to generation.
…you remember being at the hospital bedside of an elder in the community chanting prayers that he had cherished and sung over decades.
…you remember moments at the grave of one who died too young, too tragically; of a senior taken by Covid, whom the family could not visit during the final days and hours of illness.
…you remember the long distance open phone conversation with a grieving family at the bedside of a beloved mother who is about to be taken off life support, the tears, the memories, the questions, the love, the last breath.
Carl Sandburg observed that “Life is like an onion. You peel it a layer at a time and sometimes you weep.” And so, you remember the layers, the joys celebrated, the griefs shared, the challenges you helped others to overcome, the grace and the strength that sustained you as you sought to sustain others.
As the years flow, a rabbi enters a stage of “Integration.” Soren Kierkegaard, in the spirit of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet, Ch. 9), reminds us that there are some things that are true when they are whispered but not true when they are shouted. Mature religion is less about the exclamation sign and more about the question mark. With humble and grateful spirit, we begin integrating our roles as teachers and pastors, preachers and social activists, leaders and servants, loving rebukers and faithful friends.
I stand before you with a satisfying sense of integration, a feeling that my rabbinic self and my persona are one. These past near five decades have caused me to realize that being a rabbi is not what I do, but who I am: a “Rabbi in Israel,” a servant and teacher, in love with Judaism and the Jewish people, its culture, spiritual values, and moral imperatives, its answers, its questions.
We are living through difficult, bewildering times. We are uncertain, confused. We feel the impact of Covid, of climate change, of political turmoil, of war and displacement, of social and economic adjustments. This is a time of transition for rabbis, for Judaism, and the congregation. We cannot yet foresee the consequences and the direction in which we are headed.
But Judaism has never been static; it is always in process. This is not a time for timidity; it is a time for daring, imagine new possibilities. Someone has said that hopelessness is a failure of imagination. Let us imagine….
(Excerpted from my Rosh Hashanah sermon (Then, You Remember….), Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, Indianapolis, Indiana, 5783/2022)