My First 3 Years as a Rabbi: What I’ve Learned

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Yesterday, I completed my tenure as Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple. As I transition to the next stage of my life, I find myself reflecting on my first three years in the rabbinate. What follows are some of things that I have learned during this special time in my life. I hope you will find some of these reflections meaningful, and perhaps also useful to you wherever you are in your life:

  • One of the secrets of success in life is the ability to constructively collaborate with others. School generally, and rabbinical school specifically, encourages individual achievement and emphasizes independent work. The ability to successfully do things on one’s own is important, too, but I wish my teachers and educational institutions would have spent more time training me to be an effective collaborator.
  • Even the greatest of ideas will fail to take flight unless others can feel that it was their idea, too, all along.
  • No one ever complains that the rabbi’s sermon was too short.
  • Still, it’s Shabbos morning. Where are you rushing off to that’s so important?
  • The failure to carve out time for regular study is the surest path to staleness and irrelevance.
  • A rabbi’s mind and heart are his/her greatest assets. Since the mind and the heart are both part of the body, keeping one’s body healthy is essential to remaining a sharp, sensitive, and effective rabbi. In the pulpit, a delicious catered meal is never far away, and there are always pressures pulling on exercise time because the work is perpetual and limitless. But healthy eating and exercise are as important to rabbinic work as regular study.
  • Curiosity and humility are learning’s prerequisites.
  • It is important to hear and learn from criticism, and not to listen only to those who support you. My teacher, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, once said that the sweet congregant who comes to you in Kiddush each week and says, “Rabbi, that was the greatest sermon I ever heard!” is your evil inclination and will steal your soul. He was, as usual, so right.
  • At the same time, I have found it to be hard but crucial work to make sure critics have a vote, but not a veto. It is tempting to allow the one or two critical voices to outweigh all the praise and support. The critics are as important as the supporters, but not necessarily more important.
  • Lots of people have their own image of who they want you to be. It’s important to understand and even learn from those images. But ultimately, you have to be authentically you.
  • Similarly, can you imagine how a community might be transformed if its members took – and kept to – a collective vow not to complain about anything, large or small, for an entire year, to only acknowledge the good things about ourselves and each other, and to allow only positive suggestions? Self-criticism and honest introspection are important, but they can also easily become poisonous.
  • The real danger of preaching politics from the pulpit is not that people will disagree with or be upset with you. It’s not – usually – that you’ll lose your job for what you say. It’s that people will come to predict what you will think and say about any given issue and, unless they are already predisposed to agree with you, they’ll tune you out before you even open your mouth.
  • Still, sometimes the Torah gives a clear imperative about the critical issues of our time, and as a repository of a vital wisdom tradition, I feel I have a responsibility to share those teachings, even if they are unpopular.
  • Rabbi David Lieber is remembered to have taught, “you can accomplish anything, so long as you don’t worry about who gets the credit for it.” I have found this to be deep and true wisdom during my tenure here.
  • Similarly, that Yiddish proverb, “Man plans, and God laughs,” is so very true.
  • You can say what you want about organized religion, but there is something beautiful about people who will schlep to synagogue in a blizzard to honor a lost loved one, and also about community members who schlep just to ensure those mourners, even if they are strangers, are supported.
  • The level of the Kiddush is the best predictor of when certain people will be in shul on a Shabbos morning.
  • There is always more work to be done, but your toddler will only enjoy hopping around the room while ribbit-ing like a frog for a finite amount of time. Be sure to keep first things first.
  • The work is easier, better, and more rewarding when you genuinely love the people you are doing it with and for.
  • Ron Wolfson is right. It’s all about relationships.
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