When I walked to the end of my driveway the day after Sandy, my neighbor across the street was already standing at the foot of hers. Together we surveyed the huge pile of detritus that lay in the street between us. The winds had uprooted the old maple on my front lawn and caused it to fall on the telephone wires between my house and my neightbor’s. Two telephone poles had snapped like twigs, pitching the transformers into the street and causing a brief fire to flare in the middle of the road. We had been lucky, my neighbor and I agreed. The damage could have been much worse. The tree could have fallen the other way and landed on my house.
“Someone was watching over you,” said my neighbor. Another neighbor came by, picking his way over the fallen wires. He stood looking with us for a moment before observing, “Someone was watching over you.” What terrible theology, I thought to myself. Does this mean Someone wasn’t watching over the people whose houses burned to the ground in Breezy Point? Or the people down the Jersey shore who had lost everything to the storm surge? The thing about being in the rabbinate all these years is that you see sermons in everything, including morning-after storm damage. I didn’t feel a need to share my theological disagreement with my neighbors because I knew I had a place to express my ideas. Assuming the upcoming bat mitzvah would go on as scheduled, I could easily make a linkage between my neighbors’ theological conclusions and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Do you really see the hand of God in these so-called Acts of God? How do you understand the damage done to the innocent? This would all dovetail nicely with the d’var Torah the bat mitzvah had already prepared.
And this reaction would have come and gone routinely were I not leaving my congregation this coming June. Instead, a new and painful feeling intruded itself: “What will I do when I no longer have the pulpit as a forum?” Most of the time, the idea of retiring from my congregation after 19 years (33 total years since ordination) seems more theoretical than real. As I look at next September’s calendar, I note with gratitude that I won’t have to spend yet another August writing sermons for an obscenely early high holy day season. As I read the newspaper, I automatically reach to cut out an article that seems like a good idea for a high holy day sermon, then remember that I won’t be writing those sermons next year. I usually allow myself an awareness of the prospective gain but not the loss. But as I stood looking at my tree in the road, a moment of anticipatory grief had leaked through.
As much as I have complained over the years about not having the time to write sermons, not having any ideas, feeling uninspired, having other things that felt more pressing, I confess that I have come to enjoy preparing sermons for this particular congregation. I have worked in congregations where people came to services like critics to a Broadway show, but not this congregation. They come not as critics but as students, open to what I have to say and interested in taking something away with them. Sermons are just another piece of our relationship. And it is that relationship I will miss. When a 9th grader says to me accusingly, “How can you not confirm me? You named me, you bat mitzvahed me,” the loss – both hers and mine – lives for a moment between us. When a congregant says, “Next year, you can still lead our Sisterhood retreat because you will be our Rabbi Eminence [my very favorite corruption of Emerita],” I silently react defensively. Does she really think I am leaving the temple so I can come back and lead a retreat, I ask myself? But in the next moment, I let my armor slip and share in her conflict, accepting that this is just her way of holding on when she doesn’t want to let go.
When the Board emailed the congregation about my leaving, they used the word “retirement.” I balked for a moment. This isn’t really retirement for me. It is just leaving the synagogue so I can devote more time to my private practice and experience weekends without work. The word “retirement” just makes my leaving them more palatable. But on second thought, I realized that they are correct that this is my retirement. I am not interested in another pulpit. If I wanted to continue in the congregational rabbinate, I would stay where I am. But I know the time has come for me to go.
When I told one of my sons about that pang of loss at not writing sermons, he replied unsympathetically, “So you’ll start a blog.” Thank you, CCAR, for this invitation.
Rabbi Ellen Lewis (www.rabbiellenlewis.com) has a particular interest in the integration of religious and psychoanalytical concepts and has worked at developing models of clinical supervision for rabbis, cantors, and other religious professionals. In her private practice, she works with rabbis and cantors in therapy and supervision. After her ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980, she served congregations in Dallas, Texas, and Summit, New Jersey, where she was named Rabbi Honorata. Since 1994, she has been the Rabbi of the Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey in Washington, NJ (www.jcnwj.org).
Rabbi Lewis is also a certified and licensed modern psychoanalyst in private practice in Bernardsville, New Jersey and in New York City. She received her analytical training in New York at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies (www.cmps.edu) and at present serves on the faculty of the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis (www.acapnj.org). She is a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (www.aapc.org). She can be reached via email at email@example.com or in her NJ office 908 766 7586.