Sunday, April 3, 2011

Dancing in the middle of the circle

[Post I’m reading: Richard Goldstone: I’m a loser at The Muqata]

During my first year of study in Israel, when I was eighteen or so, I celebrated “chutznik” Simchas Torah at what was then known as the Laromme Hotel in Jerusalem, along with a few hundred other Anglo students. We davened, we sang, we danced, we ate, it was wonderful.

We were yeshiva-student males, so most of our dancing consisted of concentric circles, with the more energetic working their way into the inner rings until they tired. I was among those in the center for quite some time, until I was tapped on the shoulder by a more senior student, who said something along the lines of, “You don’t always need to be in the middle.”

I don’t think I even answered him; as I recall at twenty years’ distance, I simply melted sheepishly into the outer circle and stayed there for the rest of the dancing.

I don’t remember who the killjoy was; I don’t know that I ever knew his name, actually. But his words stayed with me, and the doubt they generated remained strong over the years, in arenas far from Simchas Torah: Why am I in the center? Am I looking for attention, for approval?

This is a substantive question for a shul rabbi, and it bothered me greatly when I occupied the pulpit. Even as I knew I was doing a lot of good for a lot of people, I was always dogged by that doubt: How much of what I do is not to satisfy the Divine, but instead to satisfy the people around me? Do I visit, speak, teach, advise, eulogize, dispense assistance, sit in boards and on committees and so on because I know it’s the right thing to do, or because I want people to admire me? And it did cause me to back out of the spotlight, from time to time.

Of course, everyone must admit that there is an automatic element of self-service in their world-service. Human beings are insecure and seek approval. Human beings want the respect of others. Human beings enjoy praise. To deny this would be foolish. But I wanted to know that there was also a genuine altruism, a desire to do right for right’s sake.

So I found opportunities to lock off parts of my activities, keeping them away from the public eye. I suited up as Anonyrabbi, so to speak, doing favors and taking care of people’s needs without anyone knowing who had done it. Flowers for Shabbos, a tuition bill paid, a kiddush augmented. This way, I could prove my own sincerity to myself.

But that’s not necessarily a good long-term strategy for a Rabbi – because if a rabbi’s activities are under the radar, if the rabbi succeeds in avoiding the spotlight, then people start wondering why he isn’t involved in X, or taking care of Y. The rabbi needs to publicize his activities, unfortunately; he needs to dance in the middle of the circle, for utilitarian reasons, and live with the self-doubt that generates.

I thought leaving the pulpit would help me deal with this self-doubt, but I still hear that voice challenging me when I am in the center. I suppose I always will, because (1) Most things we do involve, to some extent, that search for approval, and (2) Many things we do are public.

On the other hand, it’s not a bad thing, being troubled by this question. It keeps me honest; I can hope that as long as I am asking the question, I won’t stray too far from the right answer.


  1. I think that guy was wrong. Too many of us hover around the edges of the circle (including me). Our communities need committed people like you to stay in the center and keep the dance going.

  2. welcome to the vida dialectic-and it's very hard to know why we do what we do-but fwiw, imho he was right; if you later saw that no one was keeping up the pace, then you go back in.
    Joel Rich

  3. SuperRaizy-
    Welcome back! Does this mean you'll return to the middle of the circle by reviving your blog?

    I hear.

  4. The circle sometimes serves as the anchor. Raizy is right.

  5. I haven't disappeared entirely, I'm still lurking around!

  6. Nice articulation of the challenges in life, and in the life of the rabbi.

  7. The Alter of Slobodka explained that th Gemarra in Sotah that says Hatznea Lechet is Hachnosos Kallah. That means the ability to dance in the middle without it being a way of self aggrandizement.