If you ask almost any Jew about a career as a rabbi, they will tell you, “It is not a job for a good Jewish boy” (or girl too, if you push the joke far enough).
Is being a rabbi really worse than being a doctor? Rabbis don’t have to deal with insurance companies and arcane billing issues.
Is being a rabbi really worse than being a lawyer? Jokes about lawyers are far more painful than rabbi jokes.
I have served as a rabbi now for 26 years. There have been moments of great joy and times of great personal pain and sorrow. I have watched people embrace their Judaism and pick their lives up from the ashes and find joy and wonder in the world again. I have argued with people who were stubborn and bull headed and a couple of times it put my job on the line. I have led communities through great darkness, including lawsuits and legal accusations and have been honored by the lay leadership for my steady hand in tough times. I have also been accused of being heavy handed and my contract was not renewed because I did what I thought was right and the lay leadership did not agree.
And I would not trade a minute of it all for some other profession.
Any occupation has its job hazards. Police get shot at. Firemen get burned. Doctors get falsely accused of malpractice. Shopkeepers are accused regularly of overpricing merchandise. Mechanics are charged with fixing what isn’t broken. Butchers are accused of putting their thumb on the scale. Jockeys are accused of throwing races etc. There is no good occupation for saints. But rabbis are not saints. Not even close. At best we are simple teachers, trying to help people understand what they can control in life and to have faith when facing what they cannot control.
I have had the privilege of working with social workers close up. They patiently wait for a client to understand he or she has a problem and come to them to help find a solution. A rabbi does not have to wait. I have, on occasion, called a member of my congregation and asked him or her to come in so we could talk about what I knew was a problem they were struggling with.
I have made a difference in the lives of some of the people who I have touched and I consider that to be the most wonderful part of my “work”. We can deal with a load of frustration when we know that our efforts have turned around a life going horribly wrong and got it once again on the right path.
There have been times when I didn’t know what I would say or what I could say to help someone in a crisis, and I felt blessed that God gave me the words and the comforting hands that were needed at that moment to help that person get through the darkness. I feel that all I do is through God’s blessing and I am grateful for the opportunity to be there when needed.
There are limits. I can’t be all things to all people. I am only one rabbi and I have my own corner of the world that I am responsible for. (We call that the principle of Mara d’Atra, the teacher of that place). I try very hard to get things right all the time. I have, more often than I am comfortable confessing, missed the mark and been unable to understand a problem and failed to offer any Jewish wisdom at all. I often talk to other rabbis who seem to have a better sense of what to say in every situation. They know better how to preach and how to teach. I try to learn from everyone I encounter and I have been blessed with many good teachers.
I would love to show anyone what I do all day; the glory and the painfully boring things. The hospital visits and the sometimes disorganized committee meetings are two polar opposites but they also represent what I do all day. Sometimes, in the most mundane activities, I have been thanked for my “brilliant” understanding. I am in this profession for the long haul. I balance the short term setbacks against the long term change that I bring to my community and to all those who call me Rabbi.
Sometimes the hours are long. Sometimes the counseling leaves me exhausted. I balance my time between being the Rabbi of a community and being a husband/father to my family. I think I have done a pretty good job, together with my wife, of raising our children. One of them just was ordained as a rabbi.
She tells me it is a great occupation for a nice Jewish woman.
And I believe her.