Monday, November 22, 2010

The Large Rabbi

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here]

Last night I attended a celebration for a rabbi’s retirement, after three decades of serving a shul. Aside from the fact that the evening was beautiful, it also reminded me of one of the things I love most, and miss most, about the rabbinate. A shul rabbi is forced to become Large.

I watched the rabbi walk through the room and interact with people, shaking hands and exchanging hugs and receiving well-wishes, and I thought of all the things he knew about these people, perhaps even more than they knew about themselves. He remembered their celebrations and their shivah houses, their disputes and their reconciliations. He knew their children and their grandparents, and their uncle who liked to receive shishi when he visited. He knew their businesses, and he knew how close their businesses had once come to collapsing, until he had come up with a last minute loan arrangement. He knew what they had said at the funerals of their loved ones, and he knew what they had not said as well. He knew which shiurim they had attended, and with whom they had connected. He knew the committees they had served on, what they had done, what frustrations they had encountered and what successes they had achieved. He knew beside whom they sat in shul, and what they discussed before, during and after the derashah. He knew their favorite food and drink, and whether they lingered at the table after shabbos lunch or whether they went for a nap as soon as they could.

And, as was noted last night, he had loved all of them. There is no way a shul rabbi survives without loving them all, whether in a shul of ten members or a shul of one thousand members. You can’t fake it, and you wouldn’t want to try; the needs of all of these lives are too consistent, too all-encompassing, too permeating of every aspect of life. To be the rabbi of a shul is to expand beyond yourself, to include a community in your soul.

The shul rabbinate makes you large in another, internal dimension, too: It forces you to grow up, or, again, you won’t survive. To learn discretion, to squelch indignation, to develop patience, to abandon the idea of a comfort zone, to organize your thoughts and find ways to explain your mind to the world. To help people who will never acknowledge what you’ve done, and who may not even recognize it. To learn sound process and administration, and practice it. To swallow hard when something is against your grain, but you know it’s necessary. To push yourself to the limits and beyond in diligent effort and in emotional strain.

I assume the rabbinate is not the only experience that does this for a person. On some level, of course, marriage does it, as you welcome another into your soul and as you accept a new and less selfish way of doing business in order to build the relationship. And having children does it, too, in a bigger way than marriage. And public service of any kind does it. My point is not to claim that the rabbinate is the only way to experience these kinds of growth.

But there’s no denying it: The Rabbi is large.


  1. It gives one the opportunity to be large, not everyone takes advantage of it.
    Joel Rich

  2. Speaking as a new pulpit rabbi, thank you for the thoughtful post.

  3. Joel-
    I wish communities understood how many rabbis do take advantage of it.

    You are most welcome, and הצלחה רבה.

  4. This really resonated with me personally, I shared it with several people and I thank you for it.

  5. Another new-ish Rabbi nodding, worrying about his girth, and incredibly thankful for the opportunity to grow - which he tries to take.

  6. Rabbi David SoetendorpDecember 1, 2010 at 5:34 AM

    After 33 years in the same congregation, I warmly endorse everything the Rebbitzin's Husband says. I would only add that if from time to time there are people who do not wish you well, you have to love them too.

  7. R' Maroof, R' Gordon, R' Soetendorp-
    Thanks, and I wholeheartedly agree with the addition.