The Rabbinic Achilles Heel

When Achilles, the Greek mythological figure, was a baby, it was foreseen that he would die young. In an effort to protect him, his mother Thetis took him to the River Styx, which supposedly contained powers of invincibility. She immersed him into the river, but held him by his heel; as a result, the area under her thumb and forefinger never made contact with the water.

Achilles emerged to be a warrior who was triumphant in numerous great battles. Hector, his archrival, learned about the weak point of Achilles, namely the spot above his heel at the back of his ankle. Hector aimed his arrow directly at this vulnerable spot and when it hit its mark, the great Achilles was brought down and he perished.

I discovered this interesting legend when I ruptured my Achilles tendon earlier this week playing basketball with a young man from the community, and became curious how the longest and one of the most important tendons in our body got its name. For the record, I was winning the game, but it turns out that my body is not as young as my head thinks it is. I vividly remember my mother not letting me play any sports for at least a month before my Bar Mitzvah and, though I am now a grown man, I only wish she had issued the same edict before this big weekend. Now that you know what happened, when you see me in a boot over Shabbos we can skip the questions and focus only on celebrating together.

The Achilles has come to mean more than just a part of the body. The use of the expression “Achilles heel” as a reference to the weak spot that can bring down an otherwise strong person, was first introduced in the year 1810. In an essay by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in The Friend; a literary, moral and political weekly paper, he wrote: “Ireland, that vulnerable heel of the British Achilles!”

We all have strengths and weaknesses. While it is more productive to focus on and grow our strengths, we must remain vigilantly aware of our weaknesses. We would all do well to ask ourselves, what is my Achilles heel?

The holiest vessel in the Mishkan was the Aron, the Ark of the Covenant that contained, among other items, the precious luchos, the stone tablets. The Ark measured 2.5 x 1.5 x 1.5 cubits. Nothing in the Mishkan is coincidental, including the dimensions of its vessels. The Ba’al Haturim, Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, notes that it is by design that all of the ark’s dimensions – its width, length and height – are fractions and not whole numbers. He explained that those who represent the Ark and all that it contains must never see themselves as whole, as being completed or having arrived. We are a fraction, a work in progress, imperfect and incomplete.

In anticipation of the celebration this Shabbos marking the completion of ten years as Rabbi and Rebbetzin of Boca Raton Synagogue, I have been thinking about the rabbinate and what might be the greatest Achilles heel of our profession from which we need to be guarded and careful.

It is very easy for rabbis to begin to take themselves too seriously and to believe somehow that they are more important, their opinions matter more, and they deserve more respect or honor than anyone else. There is an expression I hear regularly and I shudder each and every time it is said to me.  “Rabbi, thank you for taking the time to call me back,” or “thank you for taking the time to meet with me.  I know how valuable your time is.”  I always respond the same way:  “My time is no more valuable than yours and calling you back or meeting with you is exactly how I want to be spending it right now.”

Many rabbis hear about how valuable their time is and they start to believe it.  They therefore leave people waiting, stand them up, or fail to call them or email them back in a timely fashion.  People come to rabbis with their problems, oftentimes with the expectation that the rabbi can solve them.  This phenomenon can leave the rabbi feeling like he has the answers and access to all of the solutions and he is all-powerful.

With all the heartache, complaints, and gossip about the rabbi and his family that sometimes comes with the job, the truth is that the rabbi gets a lot of kavod, honor.  People stand for him when he enters and wait for him until he is ready to continue certain parts of davening.  He has access to dignitaries and elected officials, he stands in front of the room each week sharing his sermon to an audience eager for his thoughts, and newspapers may call him for his opinion.

The bottom line is that it is extremely easy for all of this to go to a rabbi’s head and for him to start believing the hype.  One of the most disappointing parts of the rabbinate is meeting the other members of the rabbinate, many of whom are arrogant, egotistical, self-absorbed, and self-important.

Our job as rabbis is to understand and accept the awesome responsibility of answering halachik questions, providing guidance and advice regarding issues ranging from life and death to the mundane, and showing up when people need us most, including during life cycle events, times of illness, struggle, or loneliness.  Our mission as leaders is to articulate a vision for our community and to implement the necessary steps to achieving it.

As I reflect on the last ten years as rabbi and last 16 years in avodas ha’kodesh, I feel so incredibly blessed to be surrounded by people who insulate and protect my professional Achilles heel and remind me to take what I do seriously while not taking myself too seriously. I feel so fortunate to be able to count on my Rebbetzin, my family, my rebbeim, and my wonderful community to strike the balance between inspiring leadership in me, and reminding me I am a fraction, not a whole number. They remind me that the measure of a rabbi is not how many comments, likes, or followers he receives online, but rather it is by the personal relationships he is building offline and the lives he is influencing in a meaningful, substantive way.

A breakdown and failure of something small and neglected can throw us off balance and bring us down. When I ruptured my Achilles, I fell to the ground in extraordinary pain. No matter what we have accomplished in our professional or personal lives, if we don’t ask ourselves, what is my Achilles heel, we remain vulnerable to a collapse and painful fall. If, on the other hand, we surround ourselves with support and those who will always help maintain our balance, we can go on to bigger and greater things.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.