Rabbis are people, too

Rabbis are people, too

There was only one non-family member whom I highlighted under my daughter’s chupah eight weeks ago. His name is Shneur Zalman Fellig. When I was a boy of 10, from a broken family with a broken heart, he helped me heal and inspired me in the ways of Chabad. I ultimately became a rabbi because of him. From there, everything followed. The late Chabad-Lubavitch leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, chose me to help found a Rabbinical College in Sydney, Australia, where I eventually married my wife, and my daughter chose to marry a young Chabad rabbi from California.

Truth regardless of consequences I have dedicated books to Shneur Zalman, and constantly speak of his contribution to my life. I do so because, in the spirit of Hillel’s dictum, “that which you hate never do unto others,” I know what it is like to feel forgotten. I never wish to inflict it on anyone who has been kind to me.

Twenty-five years ago, research indicated that clergy handled stress better than most professions. Now, one in five clergy, according to Roy Oswald of the Alban Institute, score high on the burn-out scale, with rabbis leading the pack.

Most blame 70-hour workweeks for the burnout, but that is incorrect. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich will spend more hours per week campaigning. Yet they seem invigorated from the large crowds who cheer them like heroes. Wall Street bankers put in killer weeks. Yet sustained as they are with colossal bonuses that make them feel appreciated, they don’t evince the same weariness and exhasuation as do many rabbis.

Rather, the real reason clergy are burning out is an absence of communal thanks and personal gratitude.

The heart is like an aperture and few things have served to close mine more than astonishing acts of ingratitude perpetrated by people whose lives I helped change for the better. To be sure, I try and fight it, as one must. I never wish to be a victim and seek always to be master of my own emotional domain. Moreover, the work I did was for God, humanity, and the Jewish people, and never to obtain a reward. Rabbis, however, are human, too. We require the same small tokens of appreciation that constitute basic vitamins by which the soul is nourished.

As a rabbi on campus in the United Kingdom for 11 years, my wife and I every year fed thousands of students, studied with hundreds, and brought tens to Jewish observance. We were responsible for having introduced scores of young people to their spouses. I nursed them through their early relationships and placed their marriages on a solid footing.

Yet, I later noticed that there was no more assured way of losing a friendship than to do something life-changing for another person. There was the couple for whom I served as matchmaker and counseled through stormy times for more than a year who did not even invite me to their wedding. There was the student whom I prodded to date a woman he professed to have no interest in, yet is happily married to now many years later. I assisted this student through very difficult professional and personal ordeals, and introduced him to many friends who became central to his life professionally and personally. Today, I can barely get him to return an e-mail.

Then there were the students to whom I taught the very rudiments of Judaism, and who, over a three-year period, recalibrated their lives to embrace a deep spiritual commitment. When approached for simple support of my work, however, so that others might experience the same as they had, they often tell me that they are too committed to other organizations. I hear similar stories from other rabbis constantly.

What could account for good people behaving so ungratefully? It is summed up in the famous story of the Bible regarding the lack of appreciation shown to Joseph by Pharaoh’s chief butler, whom the Bible says “did not remember Joseph and forgot him.” Why the repetition? Gratitude is innate. While it is unnatural, however, not to be touched by human kindness and have it etched on one’s heart, people also wish to feel they are innovative and self-made. They find it difficult, therefore, to acknowledge a glaring debt of gratitude to another, fearinig that ascribing their success to others will compromise their own sense of accomplishment. Instead, they shirk any sense of obligation by consciously denying the debt. Thus, the butler did not merely fail to remember Joseph, he consciously chose to forget him.

Rabbis and clergy are particularly vulnerable to lack of gratitude from their communities for a number of reasons. First, their contribution to people’s lives is often spiritual and, therefore, less tangible than someone who, say, gave you your first job. Second, people usually seek out rabbis only when their lives are in crisis and forget them once the situation improves. Third, there is an expectation in society that clergy are meant to be spiritual men who give all but expect nothing in return, not even a thank you or simply staying in touch, let alone monetary compensation, even though they too have families and bills to pay like everyone else. A rabbi’s time, unlike, say, an attorney, is rarely valued.

Giving and feeling forgotten, however, is the principal reason why an astonishing 75 percent of all divorces today are initiated by wives who feel unappreciated by narcissistic husbands.

The focus of the just-ended festival of Chanukah is not on a great military victory, which was short-lived. The Hasmonean dynasty eventually led the nation to civil war and a catastrophic appeal to Rome that eventually led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Rather, Chanukah celebrates the gratitude offered by the Jews for having obtained their victory.

The Jewish call to gratitude extends even to inanimate objects, as Moses discovered when God did not allow him to personally enact the plagues of blood, frogs, and lice, seeing as the Nile River and the dust of Egypt had earlier saved his life.

My new year’s resolution, therefore, is never again to fail to give thanks to those who love me, those who stand with me, those who work with me, and those who have immeasurably enriched my life.