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May 4, 2018  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

The Greening of a Rabbi

By RABBI RICHARD BIRNHOLZ Congregation Schaarai Zedek

When I entered rabbinical school 54 years ago, I was like the 4th child at the Passover Seder – the one who did not even know to ask. That’s because I thought I already knew what a Rabbi’s job entailed. I was to answer theological questions, like, “Why bad things happen to good people?” I knew that if I could answer questions like these, my congregants would find comfort and love being Jewish.

I now realize that this assumption was flawed. Answers and logic would play a role in my calling, but not in the way I imagined. I learned this the hard way.

Short on life experience at 20, I was sent to a small congregation in Pennsylvania to lead Yom Kippur services. The student rabbi who was supposed to go had landed in the hospital and, because my name was alphabetically at the top of the incoming student list, I was asked to fill in. I had not yet experienced a day of rabbinical school. A faculty member gave me two sermons to read and sent me on my way.

Within hours I was introduced to a young woman in the congregation who had just lost her small child. I knew I needed to comfort her but did not know how. She asked why God did this to her. I answered her cry for help with a rational theological answer: “God has His ways.” But that answer distressed her even more. She walked away and didn’t attend services. I couldn’t understand what had gone wrong. Hadn’t I given her the right “God” answer?”

With time and experience, I came to understand that my rabbinate was not about answers, but about people’s hearts. Nevertheless, I was reluctant to give up my obsession with answers and the power of the mind to overcome obstacles. I convinced myself that anyone could give comfort, but a rabbi’s job was to explain why the comfort made sense. How could people deal with their suffering if they didn’t have a rational answer to explain it?

Half way through my rabbinate, however, I came across a teaching that transformed my outlook on life and on my journey as a rabbi. It also showed me where my thinking had gone wrong. The passage is found in the Talmud T.B. Berachot 5a-5b. In it Raba says: “If a man sees that painful sufferings visit him, let him examine his conduct. … If he examines and finds nothing [objectionable], let him attribute it to the neglect of the study of the Torah … If he did attribute it [thus], and still did not find [this to be the cause], let him be sure that these are chastenings of love. For it is said: For whom the Lord loveth, He correcteth.” In other words, God crushes a man with suffering to show him that God loves him.

But then a different Rabbi named Raba asks, what if a man doesn’t want that kind of love, even in exchange for prolonged life? No answer is given, and no answer seems to justify the unexplained suffering of these men. Finally, a few paragraphs later, another Rabbi offers a completely different perspective. R. Hiyya b. Abba fell ill and R. Johanan went in to visit him. He said to him: Are your sufferings welcome to you? He replied: Neither they nor their reward. (Rabbi Hiyya) then said to him: “Give me your hand. He gave him his hand and he raised him.”

Almost 2,000 years ago, the rabbis already understood that wrapping an arm around someone in pain helps far more than trying to wrap his or her mind around a theological concept. I finally became a Rabbi when I understood this human dynamic.

This teaching also yielded an additional benefit for me. It still allowed me to address the pressing theological question: why does God allow tragedy to befall people who do not deserve it? But instead of having to give an answer that tries to make the tragedy somehow acceptable, (i.e.-God did it for your own good) or one that tries to save God’s reputation (God isn’t really all-powerful after all, or God has His ways,) the Talmudic teaching allowed me to tell the truth: I don’t know why God does what God does. I don’t have an answer. But I can make God’s presence quietly tangible thorough a sympathetic hug for those who need it most.

I wish I had known to give this answer, along with a sympathetic hug, to that young woman those many years ago. I still think of her every year on Yom Kippur when, in absentia, I silently ask her for forgiveness. At the same time, I also give thanks to my 54 years of congregants who gave me the invaluable gift of allowing me to grow. It remains the best gift I could ever have received.

Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association, which assigns the column on a rotating basis.

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