For a while, I attended a gym (no longer convenient to me) with an interesting regimen. I worked out twice a week for about twenty minutes at a time. During that time, I rotated among a few machines for very slow intensive muscle work. The notion was to exhaust the muscle in two minutes or so.
I know it sounds ridiculous, but I investigated it thoroughly. The literature may or may not have had strong scientific grounding, but it changed my theology of Jewish law.
The founder of this program asked a basic question: how do you build muscle strength? His answer was: by breaking down the muscle tissue and allowing it to rebuild. That, he said, was best effected by slow and intense repetitions, not by rapid repetitive motions. He formulated it in an intriguing way. If the goal was to work the muscle, use his method. If the goal was to work the exercise machine, go for quantity over quality.
As a rabbi, of course I look for a sermon in everything. And here was one about Jewish law. I thought of a lesson I learned one day while waiting for the tenth man for a minyan at an orthodox synagogue. The rabbi discussed the change in liturgy that occurs at the end of Sukkot (Tabernacles). In the central prayer, words reminding God to cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall are added as the fall festivals conclude. But what happens if an inattentive worshiper, used to omitting those words during the summer, can’t remember if they were recited? In certain cases, the entire central prayer must be repeated. However, if it had been thirty days, it was assumed that the worshiper was habituated to it. Now, during thirty days, a pious worshiper would recite that prayer about 97 times (trust me). And so, said the rabbi giving the lesson, it became the custom of some seminary students to gather on the night the holiday concluded and chant those words 97 times. (Take one down and pass it around…)
I remember laughing (to the disapproval of the rabbi) at the absurdity. The notion was one of habituation, not literally repeating the words in rapid succession to tick them off a list!
But all those years later, here I was reading about the purpose of exercise and realizing I might very well have been doing the same thing…both on the bicep curl machine and in the performance of my religious duties. It wasn’t about speed and facility – that was just working the machine. If I wanted to strengthen my muscles and my soul, slow and intense was better.
This idea, of course, goes against everything I believed about Jewish law. It is comprehensive, made up primarily of mitzvot (commandments) meant to address every aspect of life. Mediterranean Jewish culture even commends reciting one hundred distinct blessings a day. There are grand expectations (compassionate behavior, formal garb for prayer, immersion in sacred literature) and small expectations (hand-washing, head-covering, pleasant greetings). Being a devoted Jew can be a full-time endeavor.
But the kind of rapid-fire devotion that goes for quantity over quality works the system, not the soul. The younger version of me, enamored as I was of my increasing immersion in Jewish life, collected observances like baseball cards. That sounds more frivolous than I mean it, but any kid who collects baseball cards will tell you it's very serious business.
The struggle over the years was to recapture the meaning that these practices held when they were new. Like the liturgical addition about wind and rain, initially I had to pay attention to be sure I got it right. After a while, when I became habituated, I could just presume I did it because I always did it.
Recapturing the elevating aspects of a traditional Jewish life has come to mean, ironically, doing less. Never mind what I have given up – don't worry that I am somehow no longer devoted or traditionally observant. But appreciating what makes Jewish law "work" for me means slower, fewer, more intense. It means mindfulness. It means being aware of God rather than just doing what (we have decided) God wants.
My dear friend Rabbi Irwin Kula has embarked on an audacious study of whether the commandments are achieving their purposes; can we develop metrics to determine if observance "X" makes you a better person, a wiser person, a more spiritually sophisticated person. I am anxiously awaiting the results that will make Jewish wisdom more readily available to a world in desperate need of it. But I know the answer for myself.
When I perform any mitzvah with heart, soul and might, that is, with intention, attention and intensity, it strengthens me in ways 97 mindless actions, even if those actions are what a God wants, simply cannot equal.
Early in my career, I served as the rabbi of a small congregation. How small was it? Small enough that I used to joke that our minyan was five people and a mirror. But actually, this small but dedicated community supported an almost-daily minyan and boasted an admirable attendance on Friday nights and Saturday mornings.
The only time we had trouble gathering even the minimum of ten was when the festivals landed on weekdays. I learned to expect that most of those days would be spent with a couple of close friends in a mostly empty sanctuary.
The only exception was on the last day of the festivals when we conducted Yizkor, the memorial service. Then I had a (relative) crowd – sometimes thirty adults. Once I wised up, I moved Yizkor to the next-to-last day (the Biblically mandated final day). That’s when the crowd came. And many of them were delighted because there was an orthodox service nearby that had Yizkor the next day, so they got to double dip.
Now I belong to a much larger congregation which tries valiantly to sustain a twice-daily minyan. But it is hard. 7:30 am and 7:50 pm are perhaps less inconvenient than other times, but they are tough nonetheless for people who commute, have children at home or engage in evening activities. Each week, an announcement is made at the end of Shabbat services pleading with people to set aside a morning or an evening once or twice a month “so that people can say kaddish.”
Maybe the best and worst gift of our past suffering has been the institution of the practice of reciting the prayer called kaddish in memory of the dead. The prayer, which is in Aramaic, not Hebrew, dates back 2000 years or so and bears a suspicious resemblance to the Lord’s Prayer from the Book of Matthew (“Our Father who art in heaven…”). (Argue among yourselves as to who had it first.) It appears in various forms throughout worship services and in traditional study halls. It has no mention of death and nothing to do with death.
Sometime in the Middle Ages, kaddish became a memorial prayer. You can learn more about it here. My purpose is not an exposition of its history, but of what the custom of a “mourners’ kaddish” tapped into then and now. Older colleagues of mine, equally frustrated, have referred to the custom as ancestor worship or necrophilia. The terms are harsh, but they make the point. Our prayers, including kaddish, are about life and living. The only direct mention of death is in a blessing that acknowledges God as capable of bringing life to the dead, keeping the faith with “those who sleep in the dust.”
The memory of our deceased relatives drags us to synagogue, even if they themselves attended as infrequently as so many of us. And as a result, for that so many of us, the practice and discipline of prayer has become associated with death. How awful!
When I was in seminary, the hot book among many of my classmates was Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death. In it, Becker contends that human civilization exists to avoid confronting mortality, the knowledge of which is the downside of consciousness. I leave it to you to decide whether our focus on death in our worship is part of that conspiracy or a repudiation of the theory, but I will propose that the fixation is not healthy. I do not blame our ancestors for including a moment of sacred remembrance in the context of worship, but I decry the contemporary result. Our modern skepticism has washed away the sense that prayer can be sufficiently efficacious to stand on its own merits and allowed the dark residue of bereavement to justify the continuation of the endeavor. And that, I believe, is a losing proposition.
Do I have a solution? It won’t be popular. First of all, I would eliminate all recitations of mourners’ kaddish except one, at the end of each service. I would de-emphasize the Yizkor service on festivals by encouraging rabbis not to give a “Yizkor sermon” and to set a context for private reflection for a few minutes rather than a ceremony that is decidedly not in the spirit of the Torah’s command to be “only happy” on those days (Deuteronomy 16:15). In fact, the Sephardic tradition does not include this service at all except on Yom Kippur.
But it is not enough to remove the pall of death from daily prayer. If we are going to sustain prayer, we need to find a better reason for people to engage in it. The inclusion of a memorial moment is one of a collection of sociological, psychological and anthropological overlays that have saturated our conduct of prayer. Rediscovering the inherent value of the practice of prayer (see my earlier columns below) is the essential ingredient. Otherwise, Yizkor days will be as sparsely attended as the others.
I’ll begin with something counterintuitive to most people: the rabbi does not lead services. That is to say what a rabbi does in most synagogues is not what leading prayer is about, nor does the rabbi do what leading prayer is indeed about unless she or he steps out of the role of announcing pages and telling people to stand and sit. More to come.
I have learned a lot about leadership over the past number of years. The most important lesson is about the distinction between leadership and management. Leadership, suggests Marty Linsky (who is a real expert – look him up), is about change; it is about delivering disappointment to people at a rate they can tolerate. Leadership is about testing boundaries and making things different, ideally for the better.
Management is about maintaining the status quo. A good manager reassures people by keeping them dependably within a familiar system.
Synagogue worship is the ultimate in status quo, and rabbis are, therefore, the ultimate managers.
I should have learned this lesson early in my career when I was the rabbi of an intimate congregation with devoted regulars. One of the “shul kids” had her bat mitzvah and asked to conduct the whole service, almost always my role. I worked with her on the prayers and the melodies. And when the morning came, she did a spectacular imitation of me. Not only had she mastered the Hebrew prayers, she had mastered the exact wording and phrasing of the pulpit announcements I made each week. My instructions to turn to this page, turn to that page, stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight were parroted with precision. It was the ultimate in status quo.
It is the sh’liach tzibbur (messenger of the community) who is the rightful leader of prayer. Often, this person is a hazzan (cantor), a person professionally trained in both music and liturgy, charged with the responsibility to draw collective devotion out of the community. But in many synagogues and many more minyanim (prayer quora), the duties are assumed by a lay person or the rabbi.
If leadership is delivering disappointment, what is the disappointment the prayer leader is to deliver? If leadership is promoting change, what is the change? If leadership is testing boundaries, what are the boundaries?
You won’t be surprised to discover that the targets are not the liturgy or even the collective experience, in my opinion. The targets for change are in the internal landscape of the individual Jews. If collective prayer is not encouraging the participants to consider their inadequacies, showing them a way to change (for the better) and testing the boundaries that prevent them from being better selves, then it fails miserably at everything other than management.
Yet, most rabbis treat public worship not so much as an opportunity for that kind of leadership as a long-running theatrical production, even (perhaps especially) in innovative circles. The script is inviolable, unless it calls for guest stars – people called forward to recite their lines. The fourth wall is maintained, all of the action taking place in the front. The people in attendance are spectators, dependent on announcements and (God help us) over-dramatic hand gestures to know where in the libretto to look and what position to assume. Even though the voice of the sh’liach tzibbur is guide and goad for the real prayer experience, we have imbued the role of the rabbi with a distracting authority that maintains the status quo and feeds the rabbinic ego. I’ve been there.
As my appreciation of my need for prayer deepened and expanded throughout the years (to my great surprise), my realization that it was frustrated by my pulpit role became clearer and clearer. I tried hard to model prayer rather than manage it, leaving the heavy lifting to the person whose role was the true practice of leadership – the hazzan. I tried to break through the fourth wall. I never waved people up or down. But with all that, the role of prayer manager still intruded on my prayer life, especially given the fact that so many people scrutinized my behavior as a model for their own. Eventually, in public circumstances, even when I was allegedly just a Jew in the pew, my spiritual life atrophied.
It is a fact, not a complaint. Don’t feel badly for me, and please don’t roll your eyes. I found a remedy for myself that involved disappointment, change and pushing boundaries – I left the pulpit! But I would like to think that there are other responses. I spent so many years talking and singing in front of people that I now find the deepest gratification and inspiration in listening quietly to others. My praying in private is aloud and animated. My praying in public is silent.
But here’s the deal: leading prayer must be an extension of a satisfying personal life of prayer. The person for whom prayer doesn’t work or who spends no time off the pulpit praying cannot lead prayer. Such a person can manage worship services, direct and host a weekly production and even make it onto a list of inspirational rabbis. But prayer, praying and leading prayer are, in the spiritual realm, far too important to individual Jews and to Judaism to be satisfied with the ultimate in status quo.
[Before I dive into part 2, a comment on some of the responses I received to Part 1. The general reply to my column, which began “prayer doesn’t work,” was essentially “then you’re not doing it right.” Without going into a history lesson, Jewish prayer has been the same for most of the last 2000 years when it evolved to take the place of Temple ritual. Its purpose was to repair the breach with God caused by sin. Its content, as I wrote, was to create a universal credo for the far-flung and diverse Jewish community. Those purposes, I contend, are unrealized among contemporary Jews. Prayer and its traditional purpose have not changed. Jews have, as the commenters illustrated.]
Jewish liturgy is notoriously inflexible. With minor variations, the prayers recited on the fourth Tuesday in November will not be significantly different than those recited on the third Thursday in May – just as true in 2016 as it was in 1716 and as it will be in 2316. The comfort of that consistency has been noted by travelers to the farthest-flung corners of the Jewish world. But that comfort is sociological, not theological – closer to Starbucks than to spirituality.
Praying, for American Jews, has been Protestantized, with at least a touch of Buddhification thrown in. That is to say, what we want out of our liturgy is new meaning that responds to our current circumstances in a spiritual sense, together with a certain mindfulness of the daily miracles we encounter. It comes in various names and forms but, like most of the American culture in which we are marinated, it is very personal and barely collective. Is that a bad thing? Far from it. But, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner says, if you are reading the siddur (prayer book) for new information, you will be sorely disappointed.
I was always intrigued by Christian prayer. I admired the way writing new prayers and even improvising them in the moment supplemented the traditional hymns and readings that made up Christian worship. So I started asking about it. I asked mainline Protestant pastors, African-American Baptists, students in Episcopal seminary, friends who are Evangelicals. They all spoke about letting the spirit move through them. It took me awhile to realize it was not the spirit, but the Spirit, that manifestation of God they identify with what we call shekhinah, the Holy Spirit.
I recognized that I had seen Jews pray like that already. Young women in our youth group had developed a custom of spending some moments after their individual recitation of the liturgy to stand with their eyes closed, the siddur’s binding resting on their foreheads, and their heads slightly bowed. There was a mistiness about them, especially when they opened their eyes again, that carried a certain holiness. I always associated that moment with Friday night candle-lighting, when my wife could escape into the twilight between the weekday and Shabbat and pour into it the praise, penitence and petition she accumulated from the previous days.
At the same time, I learned a bit about mindfulness practices, both the near-silent meditation of Buddhism and the practice of chanting designed to drive me deeper into appreciation of a single phrase attached to a consistent melody. In a sense, they were the very opposite of davennen, the Yiddish word for prayer, which Leon Wieseltier defines as “saying very important things much too fast.”
The minimum content of any of the three daily prayers includes nineteen distinct and interwoven blessings, a long Biblical passage from the Torah or Psalms, and an extended liturgical poem that affirms our devotional obligations, our distinctiveness among the nations and our hope for the triumph of monotheism over paganism. Practiced davvenners can complete all of that and more in ten minutes, a bit more in the morning when introductory readings and perhaps a Torah recitation are thrown in.
Preserving the communal liturgy remains, I believe, important. I have always been reluctant to tamper with what I have received from long ago. But spending as much energy on developing skill in “praying your heart” is the only thing, I believe, that will rescue this central Jewish practice from dissolution.
I experimented with it privately before going public in the moments before the Torah scroll was removed from the ark. I opened my heart and opened my mouth, and I never knew exactly what would emerge. It was exhilarating for me, even as it was terrifying, like working without a net. More important, it replaced one of those few pieces of received liturgy I always wanted to erase: a nasty anti-Christian polemic that, were it inverted and recited in churches, would certainly prompt complaints from our many defense organizations.
Once, a group of congregants did an exercise in which they were asked to find their favorite spot in the sanctuary. More than half of them chose the place I would stand and pray my heart.
But opening this ability is not so easy. Jews have a tendency to channel their yearning through learning. They overthink their words, throw in a Biblical or Talmudic reference, structure their thoughts to refer back to something they read. Spontaneity seems the enemy and cleverness substitutes for inspiration.
Music can serve the same purpose and present the same hazard. The liturgical poem El Adon that appears in the Saturday liturgy has been set to melodies that reflect different aspects of the mystical tradition it celebrates. It can sound majestic, contemplative, anticipatory, almost-reachable. The words and the melodies are symbiotic, and for the uninitiated, musically or Hebraically, they can be as effective apart as they are together.
But how often has the concluding hymn Adon Olam been set to a familiar popular tune for the sake of cleverness. The plaintive expression of faith that is indeed personally addressed – “I place my life in God’s hand, whether asleep or awake, with my soul and my body, God is with me, I will not fear” – disappears into “The William Tell Overture,” “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” or “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” I am certainly guilty of this search for connection, but I have to acknowledge I put form above substance.
Praying requires a personal investment in the endeavor. Liturgy accomplishes some of it, but I worry that those of us who are also invested in preserving the liturgy not only have channeled yearning through learning, but validated form over substance.
Guiding a group of Jews in prayer – ten, two hundred or a thousand – is daunting, but a rich and heart-rending prayer life is a prerequisite. More on that next time.
Prayer doesn’t work.
That’s not a statement of faith or, more accurately, lack of faith. It is a statement of fact.
My assertion has nothing to do with whether prayer reaches the heavens or moves God’s heart. I leave it to you to decide if prayer ever caused the phone to ring before homecoming weekend or got you an A on a test. If you say that prayer has opened within you an experience of deep insight or inspiration, or brought you comfort in despair, or channeled gratitude for an undeserved blessing, I will understand, because it has done the same for me. But that’s not what I mean.
I mean that for the majority of Jews in the world, prayer does not do what it is meant to do. I have no scientific measurement of this statement. Still, I challenge you to demonstrate otherwise.
For the greater part of two thousand years, prayer was meant to bind Jews together with a common value system and vocabulary. We pray with a fixed liturgy. Every paragraph, especially those that end with a brakha, a formulaic blessing, is meant to convey something we all believe about God and the way we see the world. But most Jews, especially in North America, only pray when they are told and what they are told. Prayer, however transcribed by the variety of prayer books by the variety of communities, is rarely something a modern Jew does voluntarily or with intention.
(A quick word about the phrase “most Jews.” There are a little less than six million Jews in the United States. A small minority attend synagogue, where they are most likely to pray. A minority of that minority certainly prays enough to raise significantly the average amount of praying that happens. But it doesn’t change the fact that most Jews pray only in synagogue, go to synagogue only when they feel they have no choice, like when they are invited to a bar mitzvah or Yom Kippur is on a federal holiday, and stand, sit or answer “amen” only when someone in the front of the room tells them to do so.)
I am one of those people who believes that prayer could work and should work, but I have to acknowledge that could and should, even when combined, do not equal does.
There is a lot more to being a Jew than prayer, but we spend more time rehearsing prayers than any other aspect of Judaism. The official identifiable institutions of Jewish life are synagogues, where, as the prayer says, people enter to pray. Seminaries and day schools set aside time for prayer. We pray before and after we eat, when we usher in holidays and when we mark every life moment from naming to burial. We pray when we remember the dead (more on that soon). We couldn’t even write a Broadway play without a prayer for the Czar.
But mostly we don’t mean it. I was struck by three words during one of the holiest moments of prayer one Saturday morning. The congregation sang with passion, “Oh when will You, God, govern Zion? Soon, in our lifetime, and then forever may You reign!” Even the most politically right-wing of my fellow worshipers do not yearn for a theocratic Jewish state without end.
Now, maybe that’s the proper thing to want. But if that is the measure of faithful belief among most Jews, even the people who can explain away what they mean are in big trouble.
Is it any wonder that we do everything we can to distract ourselves from the text we recite? Most of our prayers contain admirable exhortations and exaltations, but they are expressed in a way that is incomprehensible unless, even as a native Hebrew speaker or inspired poet, you spend an additional amount of time learning the origins, meanings, inferences, interpretations, variations and applications of the roster of blessings, Biblical readings and devotional poems that form the infrastructure of our worship. So we set them to music. We translate them into a modern idiom. We learn them by rote. We teach our children to mimic them. We publish prayer books that surround them with art, essays and enhancing commentaries. We treat prayer-time as theater (more on that soon).
I am part of that conspiracy, and I confess it is motivated by my desire to bring prayer to life for my fellow Jews. The ties that bind us, so eloquently expressed in our mother-tongue, have begun to fray. They have been politicized: conservers of tradition vs. reformers; universalists vs. particularists; egalitarians vs. elitists; people who see gender in everything vs. people who deny that there is gender in everything. I hope that just the endeavor will bring us together and transcend the particular meaning, thus opening the worth of prayer for its own sake. Even in my tiny corner of the Jewish world, I failed.
It is because prayer doesn’t work. Perhaps “any more” ought to be at the end of that sentence, but as we look to the future, rather than the past, that point is academic. Where do we now find that set of values and that connection to God that binds us as a people? And what is the best use of all that time we spend in prayer? The rabbis who are the products of this lost generation have that challenge first and foremost.
I have not stopped praying, though where and how I pray has shifted significantly. Away from my perch at the front of the room, I have the chance to look for models of success for myself. Sometimes I find them and sometimes I recognize my mistakes. More on praying next time.
I admit to being something of a grammar and syntax nerd. I may not be as expert as a copy editor, but I know when to use a comma, a semi-colon and a period. I am a stickler for subject-verb agreement. I try never to split (as opposed to “to never split”) an infinitive. And I try to be very careful with my language; when I was a pulpit rabbi, I avoided that classic announcement, “Please rise on page 37.” If the congregation had taken me literally, they would have committed the sacrilege of standing upon a sacred book.
I was the kid who knew what a collective noun was – a singular noun that stood for a group of individual persons, places or things. It is a word like committee, herd, confederation. A collective noun takes a singular verb and pronoun: The committee is its own worst enemy. Nerditude is hereby confirmed.
Because of my grammar-retentiveness, I also enjoyed grammar jokes. The one I remember best – because it spurred me to learn what it meant – was the one in which the teacher asks a student to name a collective noun. The kid replies, “Garbage can.”
“Rabbi” is a collective noun in the “garbage can” sense. No one encounters a rabbi with a clean slate. Everyone brings a story (or an anthology) to the meeting. Not all the stories are bad, not all the stories are good and, frankly, not all the stories are true, but they are all there. Some are right up front – I thought he was God, it took me awhile to get used to a “lady rabbi,” the rabbi was so smart but so judgmental. Some stories are symbols of markers on the road of life – the rabbi named me, officiated at my bar/bat mitzvah, married me, buried my grandparents. Some stories are of larger social issues – my rabbi marched with Dr. King; my rabbi is in jail for sexual misconduct; my rabbi is so late-twentieth-century.
Not every person I meet has a fixed idea of a rabbi, just as most people have a variegated relationship with Judaism. But everybody has a story. The great challenge in developing a relationship is hearing the story, often when it isn’t being told. Now, that may not be so different than any human encounter, but when it comes to being a rabbi (priest, minister, imam, guru), the stakes are different. Seeping through the human filter is a relationship with the ultimate. I call it “God,” but plenty of people either don’t know what to call their ultimate concern or, on principle, call it not-God.
Seminary education tries to instill a sense of authority and expertise in the student. Upon graduating, deeply uncertain that I had either, I discovered that I was presumed to have both. My collective-noun-of-a-title made me Moses, Akiva, Maimonides, Heschel and Wise (Stephen, Isaac and lower-case “w”). Living part-way up to that expectation is exhausting, but figuring out if the person in front of me is seeing a hero or a goat, a guardian or an oppressor, a sage or a sucker is harder. I know I am always someone else reincarnated, but I don’t know whether my past life is being promoted or punished in me.
A rabbi who chooses learning or teaching as a path may have a little less of it, but nobody, not even the guy who inspects the lungs of kosher-slaughtered animals, can avoid it. My teacher, Rabbi Jack Bloom, who was recently called to his eternal reward, called it being a “symbolic exemplar.”
All of that focus on me is beside the point. Nobody really cares. I got in a lot of trouble for saying that somewhat ineloquently toward the end of my congregational tenure, but it is true. Just as the customer service rep doesn’t get to say, “I had a bad night’s sleep, so you’ll be on hold for an extra 20 minutes,” the rabbi doesn’t get to say, “What about me?” when an unexpected death, an existential crisis or a sudden urge to know the Biblical reading for a bar mitzvah thirty years ago arises. The rabbi is an idea before she or he is a person. “Rabbi” is a collective noun into which his or her own conception of self too often disappears to everyone outside a tight and intimate circle.
That’s what you sign up for when you accept your ordination. And in the end, the best you can hope for is not to poison the well for the next rabbi.
I guess I should add an acknowledgment of the cynicism you might read into these words. On the contrary, I hope you see the realism that affirms what you, the reader (including the reader who is a rabbi or other clergy) bring to every conversation. There may be a few renegade rabbis who are in it for the power or the glory, but even the worst among us are, first and foremost, servants of the Holy One of (whichever) blessed name. We recognize that spark in you and try to hear it tell your story to the collective noun that is our sacred task.
We have an oak tree in front of our house that lends character and shade to our home. Shortly after we moved in, almost 25 years ago, we were told by a wandering tree guy that there was a disease afflicting oak trees that, as yet, had no cure, and eventually the tree would have to come down. Each year, the tree bloomed later and the leaves fell earlier, and now the amount of dead wood in the upper branches means the time has come to take it down. It has gone from grizzled to dangerous.
I am sad about the tree. It is not the first one we lost – the one in the back yard that held up our kids’ tree house is long gone. The ones in the city’s right of way with the soft pink blossoms were born to rot, and only a few remain in our neighborhood. But this tree holds great memories, perhaps my favorite being the catnaps I would take on Shabbat afternoons in the fall, leaning against its trunk. Once, my neighbor the yoga instructor asked me what I learned from sitting against the tree and was very pleased that I answered, “The value of being still.”
The acorns from the tree became fewer and smaller as the years went on, but I always believed there would be another season because I once learned that a tree puts out its best fruit in the last season before it dies. It “knows” it doesn’t need to hold anything back to recover from the winter ahead. We’re not going to get that last harvest.
I walk most mornings in service to my health and to the tracker I wear on my wrist. This morning, thinking about our tree, I happened upon a coneflower plant. (If your browser allows it, there is a picture below.) The coneflower looks sort of like a daisy (they are cousins), but is typified by a spectacular mound of florets (spiky things) in the middle. Ray florets (what I would call petals) surround the disc in the center. As the disc grows, the rays bend and seem to wilt. The coneflower looks more and more like a thistle and less and less like a flower. As you can see (maybe), it is beautiful – but once the petals bend back and down, its time, like the oak tree in my front yard, has come.
I made the conscious decision to end my career as a synagogue rabbi as I entered my 35th year in the profession. The affliction that made that decision necessary began many years earlier, and there was no cure for it. The fatigue – physical, emotional, spiritual – that stressed my limbs and my relationships crept in earlier each year and lasted longer. Sabbaticals, scheduled for three months every four years, did not come often enough. My prayer life was shot. My age became an issue for some people. My ability to care for the people I loved to serve was waning, and they deserved what I always gave them: full-throttle attention and being treated as if their life-cycle moment or religious question or spiritual challenge was as fresh and compelling for me as it was for them. And I did not find much sympathy for my struggles from some key players in my wider professional world.
I decided – with some loving honesty from my family – to stop while I was grizzled and before I became dangerous.
But I had to have my coneflower moment before I could recognize that this phase of my life needed to conclude. It came during Yom Kippur in 2011 (5772, if you are using a different calendar). I wish I could say it was a spiritual epiphany motivated by the liturgy. (That happened three years later thanks to the gorgeous services at the Jewish Theological Seminary.) It was, instead, the explosion of love that found its way into my two sermons.
In the evening, I spoke about the role of music in our lives and our worship. Woven into my words and concluding the sermon was Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” The cantor, whose talent and leadership opened my heart to the message, concluded my words by leading her a cappella group and the congregation in a soaring rendition.
The next day I spoke about dying. In the course of pleading with the people in front of me to spare their loved ones the anguish of sussing out their end-of-life desires from medical directives and powers of attorney, I recreated a conversation with my own patient and loving family about what would make my life worth continuing in a final decline. I can say confidently it changed my life; I have been told that at least some others felt the same.
You might expect that all those years in I would take a deep satisfaction that the old boy still had it in him. But, in fact, as I look back I can see that the petals had curled back and the thistle was emerging. I had held nothing back because, somehow, I knew I didn’t need to save anything for the next season.
My doctor tells me I am healthy and my wife tells me I am happy and I can confirm both diagnoses. What fell away from me was the professional infrastructure any congregational rabbi needs to maintain as part of the job and as part of his or her personal life. Knowing when it is time to turn that over to younger blood is another one of those things they never taught me in seminary.
Somewhere down the road in this blog likely will be a discussion of what it was like actually to leave the position. But the first entry was about the beginning and the second entry is about the end, so for a long time, you’ll be hearing about the middle.
It is always with you.
In the very earliest part of my career, I served a small congregation in a town with a much larger temple. The rabbi had spent his entire rabbinic life there, from the 1940s onward. Everyone called him "rabbi," including his wife whenever she referred to him. "Rabbi and I were talking yesterday," she would say.
Almost as a reaction formation, I insisted that people call me by my given name -- Jack. To be sure there were many who found it difficult, but overwhelmingly, throughout my career, I was "Jack." I explained that I didn't need reminding that I was a rabbi; I needed reminding that I was still Jack.
But even people who became my personal friends have a hard time separating me from my title. It would emerge at peculiar moments that they probably didn't even think about. When I was introduced in a social situation (and even when my wife was introduced), my title was introduced as part of the package. In moments of disagreement with long-time friends, the "rabbi card" was often played, and not by me. When other people were insufferable, it was because of their personality flaws; when I was insufferable, it was because I am a rabbi. Even my pharmacist insists on labeling my prescriptions as "Rabbi Jack Moline," something that made them harder to retrieve until I figured it out and explained to the clerks who knew not what a rabbi was that it was my title, not my first name.
Too late, probably, I realized there was no pretending I could escape it. I might want to think otherwise, but there is no time in my life I am not a rabbi. Hassidic stories speak of acolytes who observe how their rabbis tie their shoes or chop wood, and it is meant, I think, to show students that there is holiness in every aspect of life. But the story instructs the rabbis as well: you can never just tie your shoes.
I stepped out of congregational life a few years ago -- I am certain I will write about it -- and took my books, papers and title with me. "Rabbi" is bestowed gently, but rests heavily. Like the marks that constant eyeglass use leaves on either side of the nose, the weight has left imprints I cannot erase. I like to think that all those years of being "Jack" kept me grounded, but the truth is that 35 years later I am no more successful in separating myself from the title than anyone else.
I said to someone the other day that rabbis are a peculiar combination of competence and insecurity. That's what these columns will be about -- sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both.
One thing I won't ever do is violate the confidentiality I promised to those who sought my counsel. If you recognize yourself in these columns, you will be wrong, unless the circumstances are very public already. On the other hand, if you recognize yourself, you will probably be right. People are not as different from each other as they like to believe.
I spent 35 years in the pulpit and learned a few things about the people and the profession