I’ve had a few weeks to reflect since our post-election call; I imagine you all have. I have experienced a heightened awareness of something I feel at a lower level the rest of the time, and that is the knowledge that there are times I miss being on the bimah and there are times I don’t. This is one of those times where I do – and I don’t. I miss the sense of exciting opportunity but not the dread of momentous responsibility that rests heavily on rabbinic shoulders at a time like this. This post-election moment continues to be a wonderful-terrible time to be a rabbi. It’s wonderful because people need us; ditto for terrible.
Let’s start with wonderful. Most rabbis are kol bos. Because we are called upon to do many different things and may even do many different things well, we often feel an amorphous sense of purpose. We look at other colleagues who seem to have found a particular visionary path – those we think of as a social action rabbi, a scholarly rabbi, a pastoral rabbi, or an entrepreneurial rabbi – and we find ourselves wishing for a similarly defined objective. This kind of thinking (largely a fantasy) often devolves into an excuse for the self-punishing question, “How come they have it figured out and I don’t?”
Well, this may just be the moment you’ve been wishing for (and yes, I know what they say about getting what you wish for). If you have ever longed for a clear definable purpose, you have it now. You don’t have to consider yourself a “specialist rabbi” to find a renewed sense of mission in the days ahead.
That doesn’t mean that it is clear exactly how you should carry out that mission. That specific decision will depend upon who you are and what the needs and desires of your constituency might be. This is not an emergency although our feelings may be urgent. An emergency requires instantaneous response; we have time to consider our next step. It also makes no sense to think that every rabbi will or should take the same path. But it does make sense to start thinking and talking about your own possible courses of action.
What principles should you keep in mind in figuring out where you want to focus your own energies?
First, we all know the usual difficulties of finding committed volunteers. We often grumble as we find ourselves doing what we had hoped our laypeople would do. What’s different now is that our laypeople have been roused to action by this election. We have a chance to partner with them in choosing a course of action. This means that we need not take on the burden of changing the world alone; it may start with us but it can’t end there. Adding more to our plates is not a long-term solution; finding a genuine sharing is the goal.
Second, we have an opportunity to widen the Jewish tent. If we can publicize our plans to make a difference in the world, we might draw people to our communities who previously have seen no purpose to organized religious communities. We can show them the power of community in a new and real way.
Third, we have constituents who disagree with us. That isn’t a problem if they are making themselves heard in ways that are appropriate. Working with people who are cooperative is something we do well. It’s when we are working with the uncooperative that we run into trouble. Some people really do desire to talk; others simply seem to be discharging aggression with us as the target. It’s important to find a way to relate to these more aggressive people without letting ourselves be abused on the one hand or responding aggressively on the other. The best response for us is to avoid “fight or flight” and instead hold our ground and choose to engage. We can say things like: What should happen if you and I disagree? Why should that be what happens? Could something else happen? Should we agree on everything? How could that be possible?
Fourth, whatever your feelings might be, you can’t let them get in the way of the task at hand. Yes, you need to be in the moment and have your feelings. But it’s also important to keep the future in mind at the same time. As the rabbis did centuries ago, we have a religious mandate to dwell in both places, balancing today’s concerns with planning for those of tomorrow.
And finally, find a place where you can speak your truth in an unfettered way (RavBlog is a good place to start). One of the challenges of being a rabbi involves knowing when to speak and when to stay silent, how to say things and to whom. No one can operate with that level of self-restraint every moment of every day. Find those safe places where you can feel relieved of that responsibility even just for the moment.
Many of us felt such overwhelming grief in the aftermath of the election that we used the analogy of death and shivah. Our intention was never to trivialize grief, although some mourners heard it that way. Having had a few weeks to sit with this, I prefer now to use the language of loss. We grieve losses the way we grieve death to some degree. Yet while this election may carry some sense of finality, it is not final like death. It is hard to escape the fear of more losses to come. We need to plan for them.
Buy that parcel of land in Anatot. Lead with hope for the future.
Rabbi Lewis is a certified psychoanalyst in private practice in Bernardsville, NJ, and New York City. She is a member of the Society of Modern Psychoanalysts and the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis.