17 Tammuz: the walls begin to fall

Reflections on a first year

7508209290_b52c44e20d_mOne evening, about a year ago, I brought my son to the synagogue in the evening and fed him supper while meeting with the president of the board. When he started to melt down, I signed the contract which had been sitting on the table between us, and took him home to prepare for bedtime. The next day, while he was playing with his grandparents, I loaded up my car with boxes of Judaic books and brought them to work -- where I wound up beginning to prepare for a funeral, a bat mitzvah, and the Days of Awe. (So much for "I'm just going to bring over some boxes of books, I won't be long...")

Last night, at the tail-end of the congregational Fourth of July party, as "We Are Family" poured forth from a congregant's ipod and my son ate his millionth slice of watermelon, I signed a contract again. When I had signed all three copies, and so had the board president, she grinned at me and we shook hands with mock-solemnity.

I want to write something about this first year of my active rabbinate -- this first year of serving my community as its rabbi -- but I find I'm not sure where to begin. Is it even possible to begin to encapsulate this first year? The kaleidscope of images in my mind's eye is too full and varied. Preparing for Shabbat after Shabbat. Preparing for the Days of Awe. Celebrations of bar and bat mitzvah, watching our kids shine. Funerals of congregants I had known, and funerals of people who had been unknown to me until their deaths brought them front-and-center into my consciousness.

Speaking with a congregant one-on-one about something unfolding in their life. Sitting by the bedside of a man who was beginning his passage out of this life, singing him the niggun which asks the question of why a soul incarnates in this world. Standing in front of the open ark at the final service of last Yom Kippur, singing Avinu Malkeinu with all my heart and all my hoarse voice. Meditating in our sanctuary immersed in the silence of a thick winter snowfall -- and surrounded by the waterfall of summer birdsong. My son, at the cookout yesterday, gleefully banging the cymbals he had found in our basket of sanctuary instruments.

7508246080_946dce2ccc_mTimes when I tried something and it worked -- and times when I came away feeling that I hadn't lived up to what I wanted to be. Times when I felt I was really reaching people, and times when I felt as though I had borrowed Sisyphus' rock and it was about to roll back down the hill. The quiet glow of satisfaction when someone who had seemed just the tiniest bit dubious about me began to call me "Rabbi," and the chagrin when a lesson I had thought would move our b'nei mitzvah students devolved instead into a flurry of paper airplanes and inappropriate remarks. The gladness when I was able to give over a teaching I'd received from my teachers, a melody I had learned from a friend, and to feel that it had hit home.

When I began telling people, a year and change ago, that I was working with this community to develop a job description for a "halftime pulpit," many of my friends and colleagues laughed. There's no such thing as a halftime rabbi, people said; only a halftime salary! And they weren't wrong. I'm a rabbi all the time, just as I'm a poet all the time, just as I'm a mother all the time. The rabbinate is a vocation, not merely X hours of work for Y dollars in pay. And a rabbi's work is never done. I could always be doing more: more pastoral care visits, more trips to the hospital, more phone calls to check in, more b'nei mitzvah tutoring, more preparation for services, more learning, more Torah study, more teaching.

And yet. In this first year I have found that the halftime model is a blessing. Not only for practical and financial reasons, but also because it gives me a different way of thinking about life and work and how they intersect. A rabbi's work is never done -- but it would be all too easy to keep trying to finish it even so. All of us who enter this line of work do so because we want to serve. How easy it would be to say to myself, "if I just put in another hour today..." If I just stayed a bit later tonight -- if I picked up the laptop again after the toddler goes to bed -- if I worked both days this weekend instead of only one...

But the work is neverending, and I know that. And that's the blessing, assuming I can let go of the fantasy of ever being "done." All I can do is what I can do today during the hours I've allotted. After that, I have to leave work and pick up my son and take him to a playground, or make him dinner, or read him books. This turns out to be an incredible gift. I am blessed to serve as a rabbi. And I am also blessed to step away from my desk at the end of the day, having done as much as I could, and to let go of what remains un-done... which in turn allows me to return, ready to pick up the yoke again. "It's not incumbent upon us to finish the task" -- that's as much a statement about life as it is about my job. That's the way life is meant to be.

Of course there are times when this truth is hard to remember. Like any working parent, I have days when I fear that I'm shortchanging either my family or my job (or both.) But my tradition teaches me that in every moment, God speaks the world into being, and in every moment teshuvah -- re/turning, re-orienting, starting-over -- is possible. Even when a lesson plan has failed, or I've communicated something poorly, or the to-do list looms, I can take a deep breath, find the blessing in whatever is arising, and begin again. As, now, I take a deep breath, thank God and my community alike for the gift of this first year of serving Congregation Beth Israel, and begin to write the book of year two.