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It occurs to me that, unless I am sorely mistaken, there is an inordinate popular interest in the subject of rabbis, their strengths and their weaknesses, their successes and their failures, their role and their function

Rabbinic Reflections

??????????? By Rabbi Basil Herring

It occurs to me that, unless I am sorely mistaken, there is an inordinate popular interest in the subject of rabbis, their strengths and their weaknesses, their successes and their failures, their role and their function, in the synagogue and in the school, in the community and in the homes of the laymen they serve. For there can be no doubt as to the importance of the rabbi in modern Jewish life. It is the rabbi who sets the tone for much of what goes on in a community. He is the fulcrum around which so much seems to revolve. Often, people define their very attitude towards Judaism as a function of their feelings toward their rabbi, or rabbis they know or hear about. And synagogues themselves can rise or fall, flourish or decline, unite or polarize, depending in large measure on the kind of rabbinic leadership that is theirs. Thus it is important that at some point we clarify with some precision and honesty the rabbinic role, its strengths, its weaknesses, its reality - and its myths.

I would start by paraphrasing the familiar words of Dickens: for rabbis, these are the best of times and the worst of times. On the one hand rabbis today are much better off than they were yesteryear, financially and professionally. Twenty or thirty years ago rabbis were for the most part lonely souls, fighting a rear guard action against a widespread attitude that belittled religion and Judaism. This was especially true of Orthodox rabbis, whose faith and practices were written off as a relic doomed to disappear. Today there is a new respect for tradition and faith, and the religious life has demonstrated unexpected vitality in the Jewish community. Notwithstanding all this, it is also true that many rabbis have become disenchanted and burnt out, with a good number leaving the field for greener pastures. In smaller communities there are many empty pulpits; in larger communities good positions are increasingly difficult to find. Many of the most talented rabbis have developed new or parallel careers because of what they see as the limitations and frustrations of the job. And most disturbing, many men who have great promise not to enter the rabbinate in the first place, choosing more lucrative, and often more satisfying vocations instead.

Significant Pleasures

I must admit that there are significant pleasures in practicing rabbinics. It is not a 9-5 job, and not limited to sitting in an office; it is people-oriented and therefore never dull: and it affords endless opportunities for helping people on the most fundamental level, as they experience the fullness of life, from the cradle to the grave. Without question there is much satisfaction in the knowledge of helping and sharing the ups and the downs, the joys and the travails, of a fellow human being. Another plus, is the opportunity for Torah study as part of one's daily routine: if one's "work" involves the pleasures of Talmud and codes, creative thought and conceptual analysis, studying them and teaching them, reviewing them and even adding to them - such pleasures are a rare privilege for any Jew. Then there is the deep satisfaction garnered in seeing one's efforts sometimes result in other Jews coming closer to the practice of Judaism, or the strengthening of the fabric of one's Jewish community. And as a rabbi, one constantly senses the spirit of Klal Yisrael, the totality of the Jewish people. There is a sense of rootedness in the past and an identification with corporate Israel around the globe, in a sense representing one's larger constituency as a rabbi. Finally, in enumerating the major benefits of the rabbinate, there is the matter of kavod, or respect and recognition usually accorded most rabbis, at least, that is, to start with.

But there is also a negative side to the rabbinate. Oftentimes the rabbi is viewed as an employee whose boss is every dues paying member of the synagogue. His income is almost always significantly lower than that of his average balebos; hence his standard of living suffers by comparison ? even though he often provides leadership and services that in the professional or business world would receive vastly greater remuneration. Then there is the question of his responsibilities: he is always on call, having no partner to pick up when he is off duty; he makes house-calls and he must be available from early morning till late at night. His weekends are usually taken up with synagogue and communal business, his evenings occupied with classes and meetings and phone calls, because that is when his congregants are free. Shabbat and Yom Toy he is "working," hence they are times of stress and pressure for him, and for his family.

Always On-Call

And during normal work hours, what does he do? A short list would include the following: he runs the synagogue office, carries on correspondence, keeps an eye on the Hebrew school, the nursery, the youth programs, and the synagogue building. He visits the sick and comforts the bereaved; he counsels those who are troubled; and he officiates at family events, both happy and sad. He prepares lectures and discussion groups for adults and children, and writes articles, messages, and editorials. He assists charitable causes within the community and beyond it; he participates in regional and national organizations in the larger Jewish community who ask him to lecture or attend their meetings. He must work with Sisterhoods and Men's Clubs, synagogue officers and personnel, consulting and dealing with equal grace and fortitude with 101 little crises that crop up on a daily basis. He officiates at funerals and bar mitzvot, weddings and dinners, fundraisers and cocktail parties, always ready with a bon mot, and a dvar torah. He is at all times expected to be an ambassador of good will, to unaffiliated Jews, to the gentile world, to other synagogues.

Of course it is assumed that the rabbi spends much of his time studying. And so he does - with his Torah and Talmud, the parshah and the Shulkhan Arukh. But that is not enough, for in addition he must be current on the state of the world through his reading of newspapers, magazines, popular books, and journals. After all, how else will he be able to get up on the pulpit week after week, month after month, year in year out, to make insightful pronouncements on the perplexing issues of the day, in fields as disparate as politics and family life, religion and society, Zionism and theology? Imagine the challenge of creating 50 or 60 such sermons a year, Shabbat and Yom Tov, to speak with intelligence and charm, humor and learning - never sure how his words will be received, commented on, or totally ignored?

There are other problems too, including the loneliness, the sense of being on a pedestal, not just "one of the guys," never quite able to let down one's hair, somehow always on view, not just for oneself, but for one's family too. And what of the sense of constantly having to challenge the favorite assumptions of one's congregants, so many of them "experts" on the topic of what "really" counts in Judaism?

These, then, are but a few of the pros and the cons, the positive and the negative, that make up the rabbinic portfolio, the rabbi's business. Looked at in these terms, many would say that he is not in a very good line of work at all. It would appear that there are many more liabilities than there are assets in dealing full time with synagogues, balebatim, and communal demands. If so, we must ask the obvious question: why should a young man choose to enter the rabbinate today, and if he is already in the rabbinate, why should he choose to stay in, when there are so many other things he could be doing?

Jewish Leadership

One answer to these questions is to be found in a beautiful and inspiring Midrash relating to authentic Jewish leadership:

Once when Moses was attending the flock of Yitro in the desert, a young lamb ran away. Moses ran after it and found it drinking at a pool of water. When he saw this sight, he said "I did not know that you ran away because you were thirsty; you must he tired." He put the lamb on his shoulders and carried it home. Said God to Moses: "if you are so compassionate to treat dumb animals thus, by your life you shall tend my flock, the people of Israel.

Exodus- Rabbah 2:2

What is this midrash trying to say? Listen if you will, to how one of this centuries greatest rabbis, Yehiel Weinberg of Montreaux, known as the Seridei Esh, explains it. This Midrash is articulating the real meaning of Jewish leadership, as immortalized by Moshe Rabbeinu. The lost lamb is the symbol of the errant Jew, and Moses represents the servant of God, compassionate and loving, who reaches out and runs after those who have strayed from God's ways. To the casual eye, when Jews wander far and wide from traditional pastures, it appears to be a form of rebellion and disenchantment. Not so to Moses. He follows his precious lambs step by step, knowing that it is not rebellion at all, not a lack of love, but rather a real thirst that drives them in new directions. Like Moses, the true leader of Israel seeks out his lambs wherever they are, he runs after them to bring them back, if necessary to carry them on his shoulders, bearing their weight with dignity and strength, lifting them on high, so that they can see beyond the horizon. Like Moses, a rabbi must be filled with compassion and love for each one, keeping them together, shepherding them on the right path, providing them with sustenance and faithful support through thick and thin, leading the way, building the flock, creating a sense of togetherness.

The Qualities of Moses

Those were the qualities of Moses. And these are the qualities that must drive today's rabbi. As pastor and as visionary, as teacher and as an inspirer of men and women of all ages. Like Moses, to understand the deep spiritual thirst that compels so many of our people to graze in foreign pastures and drink at alien fountains, to assume the burdens of their troubles and disappointments and losses - but in so doing to lift them on high to see a better path and a clearer perspective on life. Like Moses to uncover the life-giving waters of Torah and tradition, in each generation.

This then is the answer to our question, as to what makes the rabbinic balance sheet credible: what makes the rabbinic calling worthwhile, what makes the sacrifices bearable: it is the promise and the reality of bringing Jews home to where they belong, of building a Torah community, of raising up on high religious standards and spiritual expectations. Merely to leave things as status quo, not to challenge the comfortable assumptions of the flock, to be thwarted in the attempt at creating something new - frankly, under such circumstances it is simply not worth it. But to be able to go forward together, under the flag of the Torah and tradition, makes all the difference in the world. That is why the rabbinate is a vocation for none but the brave.

Let us, therefore, both as rabbis and as laymen, not lose sight of the great promise and benefits of real rabbinic leadership. As we build our communities and synagogues, surrounded by spiritual wastelands and confused souls, let us muster our resources and unite in common cause, bringing strength to our people, redemption to our souls, and creating - together - communities of love and compassion.



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