Rabbinic Reflections

‘Sit Until You Are Called Forward’: Rabbi Harold Robinson Reflects on His 50-Year Career as a Reform Rabbi

It was my first ever Rosh HaShanah dinner as a rabbi, and I was trying to enjoy the meal, but instead was frantically reviewing my sermon and double-checking the cues, and generally full of opening night jitters. Then the phone rang: “Rabbi, what do we do if one of the family has just died at the dinner table? Did the rest of us go to service?” I frantically scrolled through memories of halachah while I extended my concern for the family and offered to come by either before or right after services. And asked for the identity of the caller so I would be able to connect. 

“Oh no, Rabbi, you misunderstood. We were just chatting around the table and wondered what would happen, hypothetically.” I asked myself; “Really? Is this why I became a rabbi?” 

Last month while attending a wonderful lecture at HUC-JIR, Cincinnati, in a room full of colleagues, my phone (on silent) signaled an incoming call. I texted, “Can I call you back in an hour?” All caps response, “NO, NOW!” I stepped out and called back. It was a woman whose father I had buried and at whose daughter’s wedding I was misader kiddushin. She was barely able to get out the words “talk to the police!” I have known the police lieutenant for forty-five years; he grew up across the street from us. The officer said, “Rabbi, her husband just died in a horrible accident.”  

Two days later I gathered with the bereft widow, the four young adult children and their significant others. The family was riven by issues; the children were still coming to terms with each other and their parents. Some had not spoken in several years. I mostly listened for three hours and even taught two texts.  

When I left, they were once again a family, tearfully embracing each other and me. This really IS why I became a rabbi! Silently, I thanked my days at HUC-JIR fifty years ago, my studies with Rabbis Mirsky and Katz, and especially conversations in the Bumming Room with you my fellow students that started me on the path that brought me and that family to that important moment.  

Most of all, I cherish the study of texts. At this moment I harken to the wisdom of Vayikra Rabbah 1:5: “Rabbi Joshua of Sichnin in the name of Rabbi Levi expounded the verse ‘For it is better it be said to you: Come up here, than you be humbled and sent down before the prince’ (Proverbs 25:7). Rabbi Akiba taught in the name of Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai: ‘Take your seat two or three lower and sit until you are called forward: rather that than if you had placed yourself higher and be told to move back. Better that people call you up, come up, than say go back, go back.’” 

It was hard but worthwhile advice to follow when I thought I knew more than I knew, and still hard but worthwhile advice to follow when I actually know even more than I imagined I knew. In almost every circumstance it has been better to be asked for advice or an opinion than to gratuitously offer one. Though it is often a struggle.  

Still, I am learning from Miriam, my beloved wife, who teaches from P’sachim (99a): “Silence is fitting for the wise … ‘Even a fool, when he holds his peace, is considered wise; and he that shuts his lips is esteemed as a man of understanding’ (Proverbs 17:28).”  

Rabbi Harold Robinson 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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