Written May 21, 2006
One Rabbi’s Ethical/Religious Will to His Congregation
In the history of our People, many have left ethical and religious wills to their children and students. While I’m sure some congregational rabbis might have left such testaments to their flock, I have not come across any to speak of. But it did occur to me that such a will night not be a bad idea in the wake of my departure from St. Louis and Young Israel.
And so, I present one “rank and file” rabbi’s ethical/religious will to his Shul. The items represent many of the values and principles I hold dear. I only wish I were able to live up to them with the ease that I find in talking or writing about them. I presume no special brilliance in this testament, only the cumulative experience and wisdom of thirty-nine years in the clinical rabbinate. I hope you will indulge me in this exercise. It comes with much reflection and presence of mind. I imagine I did it as much for myself as for you.
Clearly, each point in this missive can be validated with supporting texts from our Chazal. But that documentation is not for now.
One: Treat everyone with respect, and grant to each the dignity – the kavod – that is inherently theirs by virtue of having been created in G-d’s Image, b’ztelem Elokim. Each individual is unique and precious. You should look for ways to recognize that beautiful singularity in how you speak and behave toward others. Let it be visibly reflected in your sensitivity, your empathy, and your willingness to genuinely listen. Of course, to display such kavod to your friends is pleasant and effortless. The real challenge is to treat your opposition, those with whom you disagree, with equal respect and esteem. The imperative of “kavod ha’berios,” conferring dignity upon all people, ought to inform everything you say and do for others.
Two: Learn to give people the benefit of the doubt. More often than not, your trust in people will be rewarded by lasting friendships. Yes, there will be times when such trust will be wrongly placed. But, the risk is more than worthwhile. Most people are genuinely honest and are not out to cheat and deceive. To grant people that trust and believability is to bestow upon them the highest of compliments. Do it.
Three: Avoid using labels to define your religiosity. Labels confine and constrict, and, at worst, often divide and polarize. True, labels are often necessary for group identification; they serve an important organizational utility. But labels ought not and cannot exhaust the profound religious depth that resides within each person. Rather than self-labeling, just commit yourself to sincere spiritual growth, and when you observe such growth in others encourage and applaud the effort. Do not fear being labeled if you engage in such religious growth and never fear serious and substantive Torah study and the halachic imperatives that emerge from such study. Seek out our best rabbinic lights, sit at their feet and prepare to be religiously elevated.
Four: Take davening seriously. The problem with talking during prayer is not only in the disturbance you cause others. “Talking” plainly and sadly contradicts the very reason you are in Shul in the first place. Davening is your private time with HaShem. What could be, ought to be, more ennobling and inspiring than such a conversation. Let yourself, allow yourself, to really engage in “avodah she’balev, the service of the heart.”
Five: Always try to create value for people. Even when disagreement is inevitable, bridges of understanding can be built and sincere camaraderie can be nurtured when you sincerely look for ways to “do” for others. Never allow any dispute to override your obligation to seek opportunities to make a positive impact upon someone else’s life. Just ask yourself how you might make such a difference. The deed may not cost a cent, but the value to the recipient may well be priceless. Such acts, as you surely know, are called deeds of chesed. They are rarely automatic or reflexive; they need to be consciously cultivated. Try to be a baal chesed, not just occasionally, but always.
Six: In dealing with community politics, follow these rules and machlokes, contentious controversy, can be averted.
- Be open and honest about your goals and aims. Do not operate with hidden agendas. When these agendas are uncovered, as they inevitably always are, you will be distrusted, disliked, and your credibility will be compromised.
- Never engage in lashon hara in an attempt to discredit your opponent. All such badmouthing eventually comes back to bite you, sometimes in rather unexpected ways.
- Do not bully other people using verbal harassment and intimidation. In your determination to “win,” you will, in due course, marginalize yourself and forfeit your “place at the table.”
- In presenting your case, acknowledge your biases (we all have them) and then make your arguments cogently and substantively, always taking care to be honorable and deferential of your adversary and his opinions.
- Always say “please” and “thank you.” Be civil and respectful especially in the heat of a dispute. Remember: common courtesy goes a long way in soothing disappointment and defeat.
- And finally, consider this: at the end of the day, you will be judged not only by the rightness of your views, but, even more, by how you managed your disagreements with others.
Seven: In relating to your rabbi, remember that among his many rabbinic mandates, giving mussar is unquestionably the most difficult and painful. Difficult, because it is so hard to get it right, and painful, because even as you try not to, inevitably some people may take it as insult and not instruction. We push and we nudge, we prod and we rebuke because we must. But, please know this: all mussar comes from a place of deep affection and care. It is laced with the same love and worry, the same concern and devotion that has always characterized Judaism’s understanding of the relationship between leader and people, parent and child, teacher and student, and rabbi and congregation. And when we see, as we often do, the small steps of religious and ethical growth, the satisfaction and nachas know no bounds. The incalculable joy that a rabbi experiences when he is able to transmit the spiritual treasures of Yahadus and then successfully inspire his flock to integrate these teachings into their lives, this accomplishment, in any measure, makes the profession of the clinical rabbinate the most coveted of all callings.
Eight: And finally, always measure your every deed by one yardstick and one yardstick alone: does it serve to sanctify G-d’s name; is it a Kiddush HaShem? You’d be surprised how that simple conscious thought will inspire you to do certain things and restrain you from doing others. Keep that question forever alive and it will guard your behavior when you’re alone and bring honor to your actions when you’re among others. To be mekadesh Shem Shamayim is the glorious and proud mission of every Jew. I ask you to make it yours … always!
I thank each of you for the sacred opportunity afforded me to serve as your rabbi. I am not the same person I was when I arrived here twenty-six years ago. I have grown in more ways then I could have ever imagined. And that, in no small measure, because of the challenges and friendships that have shaped my tenure at Young Israel. For that, I will forever be profoundly grateful.
I pray you will remember me kindly and reflect upon the wisdom in this ethical/religious will that I bequeath to the membership of this wonderful congregation. My purpose, I trust, was clear. These directives have one common goal: to foster shalom bein ish l’rai’ayhu, to encourage and promote genuine harmony between us all. If we can all strive to realize that one goal, it will be a Kiddush HaShem of such unmatched greatness that it may very well herald the geulah sheleimah. V’chen yehi ratzon. And may it so be G-d’s will.
Rabbi Jeffrey Bienenfeld