Friday, 23 May 2014

Ten Years a Rabbi

What is my job – as your Rabbi, as the Rabbi of this community?
I found, on-line – where else – the results of a survey on what makes the perfect Rabbi.
Those of you who were at my induction to this Synagogue, some six years ago, will have to forgive me for reprising something here. But I don’t intend doing this whole induction thing again.


The Perfect Rabbi. 
The results of an international survey indicate the perfect Rabbi preaches for exactly fourteen minutes. 
They condemn sins but never upset anyone. They work from 8:00 AM until midnight and are also dedicated to spending quality time with their family. 
The Perfect Rabbi makes £100 a week, wears nice clothes, spends lots of money on books, drives a decent car, and gives about £100 weekly to the poor. 
The Perfect Rabbi is 28 years old and has preached 30 for years. 
The Perfect Rabbi has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all of his time with senior citizens. 
The perfect Rabbi smiles all the time with a straight face because The Perfect Rabbi has a sense of humour that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work. 
The Perfect Rabbi makes 15 calls daily on congregation families, shut-ins and the hospitalized, and is always in his office when needed.


And the report goes on to suggest

If your Rabbi does not measure up, simply send this e-mail to six other synagogues that are tired of their Rabbi, too. Then bundle up your Rabbi and send him to the synagogue on the top of the list. In one week, you will receive 1,643 Rabbis and one of them will be perfect. Have faith in this procedure. One congregation broke the chain and got its old Rabbi back in less than three weeks.


This week I commemorated 10 years as a Rabbi.

Been reflecting on what I’ve learnt on this journey.

I hope you will forgive me a certain self-indulgence. Certainly I hope that some of what I have to say may resonate for some of us – even those of us who have spent far longer pursuing very different professional paths.


10 years ago I stood in a rather dreary auditorium deep in the bowels of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and I received a Tallit and a blessing and I wept as a chapter of my life – one that had occupied so many of my waking hours for so many years closed and the next one opened. Ordination came at the end of six years intensive study and close to two years obsession over whether this was really what I wanted to do with my life. So this sermon has been 18 years in the making.


I want to share three insights that have come to serve me well on this path.


1.      A line from Pirkei Avot – the 2000 year old collection Ethics of the Fathers - Oseh L’Cha Rav

Usually translated as ‘take a Rabbi for yourself.’ Rav literally means greater.

Certain spiritual attitude I love that requires us always to have in mind someone to look up to, to ask questions to, to be inspired by. In the usual translation prevents an arrogance, instills a humility.

But there is another translation, entirely acceptable as a matter of grammar.

Oseh Lecha Rav means make yourself into a Rabbi. Pirkei Avot is addressed to Rabbis. On this translation it commands that we, Rabbis, take responsibility for our own Rabbinate. Don’t wait for anyone to turn you into anything. Judaism doesn’t work that way. You have to put in the hard work. You are accountable for your shortcomings and your successes.

I think the idea works for other professions – certainly for those professions that are more than a way of earning the money to make the rest of life bearable.

Oseh Lecah Moreh – Make yourself into a teacher

Oseh Lechah Doctor – Make yourself into a Doctor

Oseh Lechah [author] – Make yourself into a writer


Acutally I think the idea works for all the more important parts of our life.

Oseh Lechah Haver – Make yourself into a friend

Oseh Lechah Baal or Ishah – Make yourself into a husband or wife, or son or daughter.

Don’t hand over the responsibility for turning yourself into that which you wish to become to anyone else.


2.     A commentary of Rashi on an unclear verse in Psalms.

Apologies, I have to do this in gendered language.

The man who is happy delights in God’s Torah, in his/His Torah he immerses himself day and night.

There is a lack of clarity here. ‘In His/his Torah’ – whose Torah.

Is it the Torah of the happy person, or is it God’s Torah.

Do you see the problem.

So here is Rashi’s commentary.

At first it is called God’s Torah, aval mi she amal bah, but when a person struggles with it nikreit shelo, it is called his.

When you start out as a Rabbinic student – at least when I did – all those books, foreign languages, foreign schools of thought, all so foreign, all so other, at first it’s all God’s. I can’t get near it. For a long time I couldn’t consider that I would ever deserve the title Rabbi, all seemed so foreign.


Aval mi she amal bah – but when you struggle with it.

Yehege yomam valailah – when you immerse in it day and night

Eventually it becomes yours.

It seeps inside.

Understanding Torah becomes less a process of accumulation a succession of facts, and more a process of osmosis, marination.

It seeps inside until Torah, being a Rabbi, becomes who you are.

I’m more at home in these Rabbinic shoes, on this Rabbinic pulpit now. It just took time.


I often share this Rashi with conversion candidates, I always think about.

You have to take conversion seriously, you need to immerse in it until that which at first seems so other becomes your own. There is no shortcut. There is no magic pill to swallow.


A couple of sporty thoughts –

A few years ago the sports writer Matthew Syed wrote a book Bounce predicated on the notion that Raphael Nadal isn’t a pre-naturally talented tennis player. He just worked at it. Bounce, bounce, bounce.

Jonny Wilkinson is due to retire from competitive rugby this week. I’m sure he would sign up to the Bounce philosophy.


The story is told of Rabbi Akiva that he decided, late in life, to study for the Rabbinate and at the end of the first day at Yeshivah had failed to understand anything.

Frustrated and close to quitting he went to sit outside, under the eves of the Bet Midrash. It had been raining and the guttering dripped onto a spot on a stone next to him making an indentation in the stones surface.

If mere water can make such an indentation in stone, then Torah can make an indendation in a bore like myself, said Rabbi Akiva.

I know what he meant.

Bounce, bounce, bounce.


Mi sheamal bah nikreit shelo

If you struggle long enough with something it will penetrate and you will become that which you aspire to becoming.


3.     Two have hold of a Tallit – Shnaim Machzikim B’Tallit Achad

This is the first Rabbinic text traditionally taught in the ultra-orthodox world.

Suppose you are a judge and two people come before you – each holding tightly to a Tallit, and one says I found it and its mine. And the other says, I found it and its mine?

It turns out that you are supposed to get both parties to say, ‘not less than half of it is mine,’ So the claims of both can be honoured as you split the thing in half.

On the one hand it’s a question about allocation of a resource.


Deeper, about tension, pulls and ways to handle those who pull in one direction and those who pull in others.

Congregational life is being that Tallit, pulled by those who insist one thing or another.

We’ve a lot of pulls at New London – thank goodness.

Between egal and preserving current allocation of roles for men and women

Between those who want more effort placed in youth provision and those who want more effort placed in financial stability.

The lesson is to expect the tension.

Actually to be delighted by the tension – it’s a sign of life.

And then what – the Mishnah teaches you get both parties to say that not less than half the Tallit is their’s then you cut it in half.

I think it’s saying you have to give both parties a sense of having been heard, of being able to walk away feeling an integrity of the process of engaging in tension or conflict.
And then you have to make a compromise, even if it hurts.

It always hurts.


So three insights, gleaned over this past decade and more.

Asah Lecha Rav – have people to look up to, but don’t hand over the task of becoming what you wish to become to anyone else.

Mi SheAmal Bah – when a person really grapples with it, day and night, it becomes yours, a part of who you are.


Shnaim Machzikim B’Tallit Achad – there will always be people pulling at the Tallit, claiming all of it for themselves. Know this, find ways to ease the competing and be prepared to make compromises that hurt.


I’m no perfect Rabbi.

Never have been, never will be.

Much left to do, but one last thought – words from Rabbi Louis Jacobs’ induction at the New West End in 1954 – 60 years ago.

Shared them at my induction here.

Still motivate and inspire me, I hope they will for many years to come and, in turn I can find that with which to motivate us all.


Said Rabbi Jacobs then, and say I now;

"I hope that the Judaism I preach from this pulpit will be a courageous Judaism. To the best of my ability I shall see to it that no shallow, spineless Judaism, one demanding no challenge and presenting no sacrifice, shall be preached here. But I hope that I shall also see to it that no harsh, unsympathetic, inhuman interpretation of Judaism is voiced here [either].

'O my Creator, give me understanding that I may transmit your inheritance; Strengthen and uphold me that I may be far from weakness and fear.' [From the Reshut of the Sh'li'ach Tzibur - Rosh HaShanah]
May You bless all the members of this holy congregation, prosper the work of their hands and bring joy into their lives, and may You always be with us as we continue to labour to do your will in sincerity and in truth. 

[And let us say]



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