What does a rabbi do?
Are we teachers? Service leaders? Pastors?
Am I employed by Beth Shalom to perform (God forbid!) your mother’s funeral? Or to help your daughter give a devar Torah for her bat mitzvah?
Do rabbis give advice? Pray for healing? Lead by being symbolic exemplars? Counsel people going through divorce or grieving a loss or celebrating a joyful moment? Plan and execute Purim, Simḥat Torah, Tu Bishvat, Tish’ah BeAv, and so forth? Work with people converting to Judaism, or teach in the Hebrew school? Do they serve a public role in the community as representatives and advocates? Serve on committees tasked with administrative duties for our qehillah (congregation)? Help members of our community deepen their connection to Judaism?
The answer to all of those questions is of course, yes. Rabbis do all of those things, and many more.
But if you had to encapsulate what rabbis do in one sentence, what would it be?
Not so easy to answer, right?
I have some good news: Congregation Beth Shalom is now officially engaged in the process of hiring an Assistant Rabbi. This is very good news for you, because many of you know that I am stretched very thin (…), and the congregation as a whole will benefit if we have two people working in the rabbinic trenches. Our committee met for the first time this week, and we hope to be interviewing candidates as early as December. (Watch for upcoming info on two open forums in which you can participate.)
Surely some of you are thinking, “But how will we pay for another rabbi? Don’t we have a bunch of other rabbis around? Why do we need another one?”
First, I would like you to invite you to direct all questions regarding financing to our President, Alan Kopolow, and he will be happy to answer them.
But please know that Rabbi Mark Goodman, our interim Director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah, will hand off his responsibilities to the Assistant Rabbi when his term comes to an end in June. Additionally, the new Assistant Rabbi will be my partner in doing many of the things that I do from day to day and week to week. The other rabbis on staff (Rabbi Shugerman, Rabbi Freedman) have other areas of responsibility, and usually do not share in my tasks, particularly the pastoral and adult education roles.
Hiring an Assistant Rabbi will allow us to deepen our rabbinic relationships with the community. It will ensure that you, a healthy-sized congregation of 600 families, are better served for all of the pulpit and pastoral responsibilities that are right now only attended to by yours truly. I’ll come back to this thought in a moment, but first a word from our sponsor this week, Parashat Vayyetze.
Vayyetze contains, right up front, one of my favorite scenes from the Torah. (Yes, I know I have a number of these, but this one is definitely in the Top 5.)
Our hero, Ya’aqov, is fleeing his brother Esav, and he stops for the night to have a schluff. While asleep, he has a vision of angels going up and down a ladder, and upon waking, he realizes that he is in a holy place, and exclaims (Bereshit / Genesis 28:16-17),
אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ ה’ בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃ וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱ-לֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃
“Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I did not know it! … How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”
Has anybody here ever had a revelatory moment quite like that?
It is a striking statement. Ya’aqov had not thought that there was anything special about this place, or this particular time, and yet he is suddenly aware of God’s presence, of the holiness of this single point in the spacetime continuum.
One thing that we might learn from this is that sometimes extraordinary things happen in otherwise ordinary circumstances. That is, you never know when the miraculous might occur, and you may not even realize that you are in the middle of a miracle until after the fact.
And so it might very well be a good idea to expect it! The 15th-16th c. Italian commentator R. Ovadiah Seforno says that after the fact, Ya’aqov regretted not being ready for this moment:
ואנכי לא ידעתי שאלו ידעתי הייתי מכין עצמי לנבואה ולא כן עשיתי
And I did not know it. That if I had known [that God is present in this place], I would have prepared myself for prophecy; but I did not.
In retrospect, Ya’aqov realized that he missed his chance. He gets another one four chapters later, when he wrestles with an angel and is bestowed the name Yisrael. But here, he was not ready. God showed up – a miraculous moment – and Ya’aqov was caught off guard.
Do not think, ladies and gentlemen, that the synagogue is the only place where qedushah / holiness happens. On the contrary: what we learn from this passage is that holy moments can happen anywhere.
I might frame my job as a rabbi to be to remind you to connect the dots between what we learn from the Jewish bookshelf, here in the synagogue and elsewhere, with what we do with the rest of our lives. That is, the rabbi’s job is to deepen your understanding and appreciation for our tradition, so that it will stick with you; that you will remember the lessons taught by Avraham and Sarah, Rivqah and Yitzḥaq, Ya’aqov and Leah and Raḥel; that these pieces of ancient wisdom will be there when you need them, wherever you are in your Jewish journey.
We need to be ready – ready for nevu’ah / prophecy, as Seforno suggests, or maybe ready just for the opportunity to raise the general level of qedushah / holiness in our midst: by making the right choices for ourselves and for others; by greeting another person with a smile; by being a better, more respectful neighbor; by seeking to understand before we criticize; by committing to learn an inch deeper, an centimeter wider. (The Talmudic text that I taught earlier suggests that all that it takes to get the yetzer hara off of somebody’s back is to drag them into the Beit Midrash!)
That is the value of our tradition. And the role of the rabbi is to help you find the wisdom, and to be ready, because you don’t want to miss that holy moment when it comes.
I was asked recently by one of the members of our current Intro to Judaism class what the biggest challenge to contemporary Judaism is. And, lamentably, the answer is apathy. Indifference to our tradition.
And the survey data that we collect about ourselves (e.g. the recent Pew study) reinforces this: we see a gradual hardening on the far theological right, and everybody else, from Modern Orthodoxy leftward, is gradually drifting away. You know this from the realities of your own family members. Assimilation and disinterest continue to take their toll.
My primary role as a rabbi is not only to endeavor to inspire those who may be drifting away, but also to inspire you who are not, you who are still showing up for Jewish life, to deepen your commitment, to be role models for contemporary Jewish engagement, to demonstrate your appreciation and love of Jewish text, Jewish ritual, Jewish living. My primary goal is to make you care – to show you the value in our tradition, and how it can improve your life and our world. That is, to be ready for all holy moments that come your way; to recognize that God is always in the place where you are.
And the same will be true of our new Assistant Rabbi. Ladies and gentlemen, as we embark on this process, please know that foremost in my mind is that the successful candidate will inspire you to think about our tradition not only on Shabbat morning or at a Lunch and Learn or a shiv’ah house, but in every waking moment, and sometimes when, like Ya’aqov, when and where you sleep as well.
What do rabbis do? They help us to be ready for the holy moments, the times when God is in this place, and God knows we need more inspiration to do so.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/13/2021.)