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A story is told of a Jewish community long ago and far away. A certain old man, learned and philosophical, was unable to hold down a job. Every Friday morning, he went to the rabbi to ask for charity. And each time, the rabbi gave him sufficient funds to provide for the Sabbath and the upcoming week.
But the rabbi felt uneasy about this arrangement. After all, the beggar was in fact a man of learning. Surely it was humiliating for him to have to ask for alms from the rabbi each week. The rabbi felt the poor man's pain and embarrassment.
One day, the rabbi had an idea. He would see whether a job could be created that even this beggar could hold successfully. In this way, the beggar would be able to feel that he was earning his weekly stipend rather than receiving charity. The rabbi discussed the idea with the leaders of the community. Yes, they all agreed, it would be best if the beggar could be given employment. But what could he do?
At last, a proposal was put forward that found favor in everyone's eyes. A high platform would be constructed alongside the road leading into the town and a chair would be placed on it. The beggar would be hired by the Jewish community to sit on the chair and keep his eyes on the road. His job was to keep watch for the Messiah. When he spotted the Messiah coming up the road, he was to rush into town and alert the townspeople so they could give the Messiah a proper reception.
It was agreed by the rabbi and communal leaders. And thepauper accepted the job with some satisfaction.
On the Friday morning after the first week of work, the man came to the rabbi for his pay. The rabbi paid his salary and asked him how he liked his job. "It is fine for now," said the old man.
And so the process repeated itself for several weeks.
But then came a Friday morning when, after the rabbi gave him his pay, the old man said: "Rabbi, I am quitting this job."
Astounded, the rabbi asked: "Why should you quit?"
The old man answered: "Too much pressure!"
Too much pressure? What did the old sage have in mind? His job seems to have been fairly simple and straightforward, not particularly taxing or stressful.
And yet, if we think carefully about his situation, we will realize that in fact his responsibility entailed a very stressful conflict. On the one hand, waiting for the Messiah requires infinite patience. We have been awaiting his arrival for centuries, millennia. Perhaps he will not appear for many years to come, maybe not in our lifetimes. But we wait. With infinite patience and calm confidence, we wait for the promised day when the Messiah will arrive, when peace will fill the earth, when the people of Israel will be truly free and unpersecuted. If he does not come today, perhaps tomorrow; and if not tomorrow, perhaps next week; and if not next week, maybe next year, or a few years from now, or many years from now. We are patient. We will wait.
On the other hand, waiting for the Messiah also demands an opposite attitude: infinite impatience. We don't want to wait years and centuries for the world to be rid of war, hatred, violence, injustice. We can't bear the delay. We want redemption now, as quickly as possible. We have no patience for the evil in our society and our world. We want Messiah now. We are infinitely impatient. We have waited long enough, more than long enough.
And so the old man's conflict became an unbearable source of pressure. He was the one designated to look up the road in hopeful anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. He was the one who had to spend minute after minute, day after day, always focused on the absence of the Messiah. Infinite patience was required; but he was also infinitely impatient. He could not stand the inner conflict. He quit.
To a large extent, a rabbi (and any religious Jew for that matter) can identify with the plight of the old man. We have profound faith that the Messiah will come one day, and even if he tarries we will wait for him and long for him each day. We have a vivid vision of what the world will be in the future—a world of righteousness and justice, peace and dignity, a world in which Jews can live without fear of oppression. But our vision is so powerful, we want it to be realized immediately. Every day that passes without redemption is a day lost forever.
Gershom Scholem, the great 20th century scholar of kabbalah, once described a mystic as someone who struggles with all his might against a world with which he wants more than anything to be at peace. The mystic, according to this description, is one who is infinitely impatient to realize God's kingdom on earth. He is at odds with the spiritual imperfections of this world; he yearns with all his heart for tikkun, correction of the universe to reflect the spiritual perfection that God has promised. He fights against this world, he is alienated from it, he focuses on the true, perfect world of spirit. He wants to be at peace, but he cannot make peace with imperfection.
On the other side of the spectrum from the mystic is the fatalist, possessed of infinite patience. Whatever is, is a manifestation of God's will. The fatalist's philosophy is clear: accept things as they are. Know your place. Develop a piety which is equated with passive quietism. Everything that happens is for the best, is part of God's plan. The fatalist is at peace with a world with which he should be at war.
But for those of us who are not fully mystics or fatalists, our struggle is to balance the claims of infinite impatience and infinite patience. We are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with the world; and yet we must constantly strive to achieve internal and external peace.
In an essay I wrote (originally published in Moment Magazine, September 1980), I stated:
A religious person devotes his life to ideals, values, and observances which generally are at odds with the society in which he lives. He fights with all his power to resist succumbing to the overwhelming non-religious forces around him. Yet, he does not want to live his life as a struggle. He wants to be at peace. He wants to be able to relax his guard, not always to feel under siege.
It is no simple matter to balance the inner dialectic between infinite patience and infinite impatience, between a sense of being at war with the world and desperately striving to be at peace. But a rabbi has an even greater challenge. In describing the dilemma of the modern Orthodox rabbi (in the above-mentioned essay), I wrote:
And in the most confusing situation of all we have the enlightened Orthodox rabbi. Not only is he busy with his own personal struggles, fighting his own wars, but he also is responsible for the struggles and battles of his community. Sometimes, his congregation may not even realize there is a war. Sometimes, he may appear to be a modern version of Don Quixote. Sometimes, he is perceived as being too religious and idealistic, and sometimes, he is perceived as being crass, materialistic, secularist. For some people he is not modern enough, while for others he is a traitor to tradition.
During my first few years as rabbi, I studied Talmud with Rabbi Meyer Simcha Feldblum, then professor of talmudic literature in the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University. I went to his apartment in Washington Heights (New York City) several mornings a week, and we studied a variety of talmudic texts. Rabbi Feldblum, who later moved to Israel to teach talmudic literature at Bar Ilan University, was one of the great influences on my rabbinic life. He taught his students to evaluate each text in its proper historical and literary contexts. His enthusiasm for Talmud and his intellectual integrity were sources of inspiration.
At one of our sessions (in the spring of 1971), I confided in him that I was thinking of leaving the rabbinate. I had only been serving for a few years, but I found the pressures unbearable. I was not bothered by the actual rabbinic responsibilities; I was quite happy with my work and the people of the congregation. So what was my complaint? The task was too great. I had in my mind a vision of what a congregation should be in a perfect world. I thought that if I devoted myself selflessly to achieving these ideals, I would succeed in realizing my vision. But I had worked day and night, drawn on all my intellect and talent, and nevertheless nothing much was changing. The congregation was no nearer my ideal of perfection; my work was in vain; perhaps I was simply inadequate to the challenge.
Dr. Feldblum offered me a rabbinic lesson. In the days of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem, the Temple ritual required the offering of incense. The priest put together the various spices and ground them into a very fine mixture. The Talmud states that when the priest was grinding the spices, someone stood alongside him and said: "Grind it very fine, very fine grind it." Why was this person obligated to say this? The Talmud explains: "Because the voice is good for [grinding] spices." Dr. Feldblum asked: "In what way is the voice good for the grinding of spices? How does this help in the preparation of the incense?" The answer: When the priest is grinding the spices, he reaches a point where he feels his work is useless. Nothing is happening. The continued grinding makes no difference. So a person stands alongside him and tells him: keep grinding, something is happening even if you don't readily perceive it. Stay with the task until it is done properly.
"So it is," said Dr. Feldblum, "with the work of a rabbi or teacher. You work very hard, grinding away at your labors, sometimes feeling that nothing is happening, nothing is changing. Someone needs to stand up and tell you: your work is not in vain. It may seem tedious and unproductive. But keep your eye on your goal. Have patience. Keep grinding." Dr. Feldblum's voice gave me the encouragement I needed at that moment. His was the voice that said: keep grinding.
But the pressure was not to disappear. A rabbi does not simply want to grow spiritually, he wants his community to grow spiritually as well. He sees many virtues in his congregation; but he also sees failings, lack of knowledge in many religious areas, carelessness in matters of religious observance. He realizes that for many people, religion is not the top priority in their lives; for some, it is more in the realm of an old habit or superstition. But the rabbi is driven to inspire, teach, transform lives, shake spiritual apathy.
A young rabbi thinks (at least I did) that people are only too happy to deepen their religious knowledge and observance if only they are inspired to do so. The task is to find the right medium of communication, but once people hear the rabbi's message properly, they will surely see the truth of what he is teaching. But more often than not, people do not transform their lives right away. They may never transform them. They have their own thoughts and issues and concerns. They may not ever be receptive to the message of even the most talented and dedicated rabbi.
But the rabbi must grind on. If I did not succeed with this set of sermons, maybe my next sermons will break through to them. If my classes did not attract too many students this time, maybe next time I will generate greater interest. If I have not moved people to greater religious commitments through friendship, or personal example, or helping them at difficult times—then maybe I will find other ways in the future. I have to be infinitely patient. People move at their own pace and with their own rhythm, not mine.
Yes. But it is not easy to be infinitely patient, to take failure after failure and still retain confidence that the future will be better. A rabbi is, after all, also infinitely impatient.
I was fortunate in being able to discuss my frustrations with the president of our congregation, Edgar J. Nathan 3rd, and with the chairman of the ministerial committee (a sort of steering committee for the Board of Trustees), Ronald P. Stanton. Both of these men have been the best possible friends a rabbi could have. Although rabbis may not naturally feel comfortable confiding in synagogue leaders, I found such integrity and wisdom in Edgar and Ronald that I felt I could trust them with my thoughts. And I have never been disappointed in this trust.
In 1978, I had reached another serious crisis in my career as rabbi. I was in my tenth year of the rabbinate, no longer a novice. Although I had done many fine things and established many wonderful friendships in the congregation, I still felt a vast gap between ideals and reality. I was impatient to the breaking point. Edgar and Ronald advised: give yourself more time, focus on the positive changes that have occurred in the life of the congregation and in the congregants, take a long view of things. I knew they were right, and yet I felt distinctly unsatisfied as rabbi. Perhaps I was not adequately talented, creative, wise; perhaps someone else could be more successful than I in advancing the spiritual life of the congregation.
Edgar and Ronald suggested that we meet with Dr. Norman Lamm, the president of Yeshiva University, and a good friend and guide. Dr. Lamm asked me in advance of our meeting to explain exactly what was troubling me.
If I had to explain what I had accomplished as a rabbi, I could offer a fine resume. I was serving one of the great congregations of American Jewry; I was generally well liked and appreciated; I was earning a decent living; I was active in important communal organizations and projects; I had authored a number of articles and a book. What was I? A successful rabbi.
But who was I as a rabbi? To this question, which probed to my inner feelings, my answer was more complex. Yes, I was studying and teaching Torah, doing acts of charity and lovingkindness. I was in a context that allowed me to grow spiritually and to help others in their confrontations with life. But I was eminently aware of failure: I had not achieved the goals I had hoped to achieve; I no longer was certain that I ever would or could. The ideals that animated my inner life were far from realization in the real world. The thought grew within me that I could wend my way through life in my present position, giving all appearances of success and happiness; and yet be a failure in my own eyes. To me this was intolerable. I had no intention of living a lie, of betraying my ideals, of making peace with the status quo. And yet, I could see no way of accomplishing what I hoped to accomplish. My inner dynamic had tilted again to the side of impatience.
I conveyed these thoughts to Dr. Lamm, and then the four of us had our meeting. I reviewed my dilemma for them. After some discussion among all of us, Dr. Lamm made an observation. Of course you are frustrated as a rabbi. Of course your ideals are beyond your ability to bring them into full realization. That is the nature of being a rabbi, an idealistic human being. If you did not have these feelings of frustration and self-doubt, you shouldn't be a rabbi. Who was the greatest rabbi of all time? Moses! And didn't Moses have his hands full? And didn't he contend with all the spiritual failings of his people, and carry the burden of leadership with pain? Didn't he have moments when he felt he was inadequate to fulfill his mission? And didn't he fail to enter the Promised Land?
That is the nature of rabbinic leadership, said Dr. Lamm. You try to bring the world closer to spiritual perfection, knowing all along that you will not and cannot fully succeed in your efforts. You invest your life, day by day, person by person, family by family. You will help some people enrich their lives Jewishly; and some people you will fail to reach with your message. Stop worrying about your internal conflicts, and put yourself to work with greater energy and enthusiasm.
And this conversation restored my infinite patience and put it back into balance with my infinite impatience. So I did not quit.
In my years of service as a rabbi, I have had the opportunity to work with many other rabbis in many different contexts. I have served as president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Rabbinic Alumni of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University, and the Commission on Synagogue Relations of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York. I have served as chairman of the national rabbinic cabinet of the Jewish National Fund, and as an officer or board member of numerous organizations, including the New York Board of Rabbis, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the national rabbinic cabinet of the United Jewish Appeal, and State of Israel Bonds. I have worked with some of the best of rabbis and some of the worst. I have known some who were so infinitely impatient that they burned out. Some left the rabbinate, others tried to coast their way to retirement. I have known some rabbis who were so infinitely patient that nothing seemed to faze them. They found peace in their own inner worlds and seemed not to be perturbed by the religious shortcomings of their communities or the moral failings of society.
What is a rabbi in the eyes of the public? To some, he is a sort of guru, full of charisma and energy, telling them what to do and what to think. To others, he is a social worker, or politician, or administrator. For some, the rabbi is a religious functionary who presides at synagogue services and religious ceremonies. Some view a rabbi as a "public Jew" who represents the Jewish community to the non-Jewish world. Others think a rabbi is the spokesman for and teacher of Torah.
And indeed, some rabbis fit into each of these categories, and often into several—or most— of them. But people also need to know that the rabbi has an inner life, full of dynamism, faith, self-doubt, anxiety. Any rabbi deserving of the title is torn by the conflict of balancing infinite patience and infinite impatience. What is your rabbi? You can probably give a good resume. Who is your rabbi? You may not have really given this question serious thought.
The Kabbalah speaks of sefirot, divine emanations, that symbolically describe the attributes of God and His relationship with the world. The lowest of the sefirot is Malkhut (kingdom). It represents the domain in which the Divine Presence, the Shekhinah, is most approachable to human beings. An infinite gap separates physical mortals from the divine spirit of God; and yet God has created a framework, Malkhut, whereby humans can in some measure interact with the divine.
A rabbi, like every religious person, strives to achieve as high a level of relationship with God as possible. Through Torah study, prayer, contemplation, and observation of the natural world, a person attempts to establish a sort of intimacy with the divine, a feeling that God is hovering nearby, that the Shekhinah's presence can be sensed at the core of one's being.
The realm of Malkhut beckons us to strive toward the Godly. The deeper our inner religious life, the more we may experience the majesty of God; and the more we wish to do our share to establish the kingdom of God on earth.
We find ourselves participating in the image of our forefather Jacob's dream: we live on a ladder whose feet are on the ground and whose head is in heaven. And we, like the angels on Jacob's ladder, find ourselves ascending and descending. The religious life is characterized by inner movement, dialectical tensions; it is not static and fixed.
When a person gives up the spiritual struggle, a fire goes out within him. When a rabbi gives up the spiritual struggle, he becomes the persona of a rabbi, not a genuine rabbi. He ceases to be an authentic religious figure; he can only pretend to be a rabbi. A rabbi's greatest nightmare is that he will lose his inner light, becoming a caricature of a rabbi. A rabbi's greatest dream is that he will always be worthy of the rabbinic challenge. He prays that he will always be infinitely patient and infinitely impatient: and not quit.
In 1985, Rabbi Isaac Trainin, then director of the Department of Religious Affairs of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies in New York, was putting together another volume of his "communal diary." As I had worked closely with him for some years, he asked me to contribute a short essay to his new volume on the topic: "Experiences of a Rabbi."
The following is an excerpt of that essay, which is as expressive now as it was when I wrote it fifteen years ago.
To be a good rabbi, one needs the optimism of youth and the wisdom of age. It is difficult to combine both of these qualities. In the early stages of one's career, optimism tends to be the stronger force. As one gains years of experience, a more tranquil wisdom sets in.
A rabbi becomes "old" more quickly than the average person. Rabbis are constantly involved in crisis situations. They regularly deal with death, and with birth, and with marriage, and with divorce. They share the sorrows and joys of an entire community. A rabbi may officiate at a funeral in the morning, rush back to the synagogue to perform a wedding, then attend a celebration naming a newborn baby, followed by a visit to a house of mourning. One of the challenges of the rabbinate which I learned from my earliest days is the rapid changes of emotion during relatively short spans of time, even a single day. Somehow, people expect that a rabbi can switch his emotions on or off, according to the need of the occasion. But a rabbi is only human, and has feelings of his own.
Since the rabbi is intensely involved with life and death, he gains the wisdom of experience in a compressed amount of time. But this relatively quick metamorphosis has problems of its own.
A young rabbi expects that he will be able to change the world. He is filled with dreams and aspirations, and is optimistic of his ability to succeed dramatically. Experience often dampens youthful enthusiasm. It teaches one to have more realistic expectations, to accept the limitations of others and—more importantly—the limitations of one's self. But if one loses his optimism, his belief that he can indeed change the world, then it is difficult for him to be a good rabbi. He simply becomes a polite administrator, master of ceremonies, entertainer, etc. He is content to take his salary, keep the boat from rocking too much, and hold off until retirement.
A rabbi is not an endless source of knowledge and wisdom. A rabbi must always study, replenish his knowledge, renew his intellectual and spiritual content. Our sages were right in equating the study of Torah with freedom.
One of the great modern rabbis, upon his retirement, was asked what he felt was his greatest accomplishment in the rabbinate. He answered: my wife and I succeeded in raising our children to be religious Jews. Ultimately, I suppose this is the greatest accomplishment which any Jew can attain. One's first responsibility is to his own family. A good family is certainly a source of strength and encouragement to anybody, certainly a rabbi. In this regard, I have been particularly blessed with my wife Gilda and our children, Hayyim, Ronda, and Elana.
The rabbinate makes one grow "old" relatively quickly. But it also keeps one "young" and optimistic. There is always something more to be done, another challenge, another opportunity. We are still far, far away from the Promised Land. But every day, we work to move a little bit closer.