Rabbinic Reflections

Then You Remember: Rabbi Dennis Sasso Reflects on 50 Years as a Reform Rabbi

Some years ago, I wrote about stages of the rabbinate. I called the first stage “I want to change the world;” stage two: “I want to touch your soul;” stage three: “Wow! I can make a difference;” stage four: “What’s it all about?,” and stage five: “Integration.”

In the “I want to change the world” stage, I was ready to unpack and transmit everything I had learned in rabbinical seminary and make every congregant a maximalist Jew. I had so much to teach, so many good ideas, if people would only listen. As we mature, we realize that our presence is more important than our ideas, and our compassion more important than defending faith and tradition. 

The rabbi then discovers that there are issues in the lives of vulnerable human beings and begins to own the role of pastor, entering the stage of “I want to touch your soul.” We are not just enactors of rituals and ceremonials, preachers of theology and ethics, but spiritual counselors whose caring and appropriate words and gestures, whose loyal presence, can help to ease the burden and double the joys of our congregants.

“Rabbi” means teacher. As I was graduating college, I considered an academic career, but soon realized that it was being with people gathered for prayer, celebration, and memory, for the performance of acts of justice and kindness, that most compelled me. I cherished my involvement in academia and writing, but I preferred being a mentor, a guide, and fellow traveler with the Jews of today. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan reminded us, “The rabbi should not be a walking sarcophagus of dead ideas about religion, but an interpreter of the experiences… of religion that are understandable and relevant.”

With the passing of years, the rabbi becomes a leader who “can make a difference” in the broader community, sometimes drawing strong reactions. A mentor warned me, “Some people will love you without reason, and some will hate you without cause. Be yourself. You will know when you have done well.” Rabbi Israel Salanter warned, “A rabbi whose community can never agree with him cannot be their rabbi; but a rabbi who never disagrees with his community is not fit to be a rabbi.”

There will be times of doubt when a rabbi questions ideals and vocation. It’s the “what’s it all about?” stage. Then, you remember…

you remember the love in the faces of new parents holding a newborn and praying for health and joys;

you remember standing on the bimah with a nervous thirteen-year-old, offering blessings and assurance;

you remember moments under the chuppah, with a young couple with whose parents you also had stood under the wedding canopy, celebrating the ongoing chain of tradition and love;

you remember being at the hospital bedside of an elder chanting prayers he had cherished and sung, moments at the graveside of one who died too young, or of a senior taken by Covid, whom the family could not visit during the final days and hours.

you remember the open phone conversation with a grieving family standing near a beloved mother about to be taken off life support—the tears, the love, the last breath.

Carl Sandburg observed that “Life is like an onion. You peel it a layer at a time and sometimes you weep.” And so, you remember the layers, the joys, the tears, the grace, and the strength that sustained you as you sought to sustain others.

As the years flow, a rabbi enters a stage of “integration.” Soren Kierkegaard reminds us that some things are true when they are whispered, but not true when they are shouted. Mature religion is less about the exclamation sign and more about the question mark. With humble and grateful spirit, we enter the stage of “integration”—the feeling, the awareness, that our rabbinic self and persona are one. 

Being a “Rabbi in Israel,” even now in retirement, is not what I do, but who I am—a servant and teacher in love with Judaism and the Jewish people, our culture, our spiritual values, our memories, our moral imperatives, our answers, our questions, our gifts of hope and imagination to shape a better world. Let us imagine…

Rabbi Dennis Sasso is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and all of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.

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