“Rabbi, Do You Have Five Minutes?”
I am asked this question all the time. As I am walking out of the Oneg Shabbat, as I am finishing preparations for a class, as I am setting up for Torah Tots, someone stops me and says “Rabbi, do you have five minutes?” In the early days of my rabbinate, I always said ‘yes’. Standing in the hallway, I waited for the question about the meeting agenda, a mitzvah project, or availability for an unveiling.
Those questions rarely surfaced. In the requested five minutes I have heard a story about an abusive partner (a fellow temple member), a deceased mother who died young when hit by drunk driver, and a myriad of medical diagnoses. Impending divorces seem to often be shared after the request for five minutes. Needless to say, these were never just five minute conversations, and rarely appropriate for the hallway.
I have gone through many stages in my understanding of this request. At first I took it at face value and found myself surprised over and over again. Then I learned to realize that the request for five minutes was like a code. I had cracked the code and wasn’t surprised when a much more significant conversation was needed. Not surprised, but annoyed nonetheless. “Why can’t she make an appointment when I can give her my full attention?” “Why doesn’t he realize that this is not a five minute conversation?” “Surely he realizes that I am about to teach/on my way home/in between meetings?”
Why is it that people use a phrase that minimizes what is often far from minimal – death, loss, disappointment, heartbreak? I have two thoughts – one that focuses on those making the “five minute” request, and one that is about us as rabbis. Making an appointment to talk to the rabbi adds weight and gravity to the subject at hand. To actually schedule a time, come in to the office, and sit behind a closed door is to acknowledge a depth of need that many may not yet be able to confront. Asking for “five minutes” may be a gentle entry into a difficult subject, a way for the individual to try to hold on to the notion that the crises they confront is not as challenging as they fear. In granting the five minutes that is really 45 minutes, we may gently usher those we care for along their path of growth and understanding.
But I think there is something even more significant in this interaction about how we see our rabbinic work and the message we convey to others. What does it mean when we say we are busy, that we have a lot to do? Many of us list meetings to attend, classes to prepare and teach, money to raise, boards to train. We would all say that being present for our community, sharing in their joys and sorrows is also ‘what we do’. But being present outside of formal life cycle events often can’t be scheduled in the same way as the planning meeting for mitzvah day, and is what gets lost in the crush of an overburdened schedule.
The turning point for me in understanding this was a conversation that I had with a women who had asked for five minutes. After our non-five minute conversation I asked her why she hadn’t made an appointment. She said, “Rabbi, you are always so busy and I know how much you have to do. I didn’t want to add to that.” I have thought about these words often, and with some shame. I am busy and I do have a lot to do – and one of the most important of those things I have to do is to be fully present for people like her and all those others who only ask for five minutes. How many times, in my busy-ness, have I failed to convey this?
I have tried to shift my mindset, to make space for the meaningful interactions that happen as people walk in with their kids for tutoring or religious school or to prepare mailings or wait for a luncheon. Being available in all of the in-between times doesn’t interrupt my work, it is my work – holy and sacred work for which I am profoundly grateful.
Betsy Torop is the CCAR Manager for Member Engagement and the Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom, Brandon, Florida.