Op-Ed: The Rabbi As Superhero, by Rabbi Bini maryles

22 Dec 2008

A young teen is struggling with serious religious questions about God, faith, Torah, or even less ‘sublime’ matters such as friends, grades, boy/girlfriends.
Whom do they turn to for answers and a guiding hand? Mom and Dad?…The rabbi. You’re stuck on an airplane or in the office and Shabbat is about to arrive. You don’t know what to do. Do you call your spouse first, kids? Nope…you call the rabbi. Your cat is stuck in a tree and you don’t have a ladder…ok, on this one call the fire department, but don’t be shocked if the rabbi has a ladder or at least calls when the cat is rescued.

It’s not crazy to think that everything said above is true, because all of these scenarios happened. Make no mistake about it — rabbis are superheroes. Not run-of-the-mill heroes or 15-minutes-of-fame type. There is a big ‘R’ emblazoned on their chest, although you may not see it or realize it. They are not rock stars or celebrities, but superheroes, and the fictional ones, Superman included, have nothing on them and rabbis don’t get to turn into Clark Kent. The suit on the rabbi is his cape and his work clothes.

Take a 24-hour period in your own lives and compare it side-by-side with the rabbi. It starts at 6:00 a.m. with davening, or earlier if he gives daf yomi or serves as a mashgiach and there is an early morning delivery at the local store he needs to be present for. Davening is followed by office hours, hospital visits, shiva calls, phone calls, emails, meetings with members — perhaps staff if it is a larger shul — car pool, shopping…all before 9:00 a.m!

Perhaps the rabbi has another job (or two) to help meet some of the financial burden, so there is commuting time or classroom work. Then there is prep time for tonight’s class and the Shabbat sermon has to be a winner because it’s Stevie’s bar mitzvah and Sara’s bat mitzvah. Next week is Yom Tov, so he has to examine the checklist to make sure the bulletins and the appeal cards are in order. Is the day over yet?…It’s hardly past noon.

A Shoulder to Cry On

On the serious side, rabbis also deal with our most sobering and personal issues. At a death of a parent, whether under tragic or ‘normal’ circumstances, our first call is to the rabbi. The rabbi arrives at our home or the hospital, provides comfort or a hug or a tear. He is the shoulder to cry on; the person to lean on as we show ultimate respect to our dearly departed loved one. He shepherds us through those moments, providing comfort with words of consolation, with a dignified and moving service and respect for all who come to mourn.

In an instant the rabbi gets a call or an email from another family celebrating the just-happened birth of their first child. The parents confided in and consulted with the rabbi as they endured infertility issues for many years. Sorrow to elation, cemetery to hospital, and no time to shower or change shoes. This is the rabbinate. It is gut-wrenching, heart-pounding, stressful and mind-blowing all at the same time. It is juggling private and public life, managing to stay even-keeled and balanced even when you don’t want to. It is heroic, whether we know it or say it. Rabbis are superheroes.

A number of years ago, during the first year of a friend’s time as a rabbi, his colleague became ill and passed away very suddenly. It was the first week after Sukkot. The rabbi had time neither to mourn his friend nor to express his own personal sadness because that same week a young child in his community was diagnosed with a rare illness. It required much time to be spent with the family of the young child as well as with the shocked community, to come together to pray, to learn to cry and yet hope for a miracle.

The same week, being Parshat B’reishit, the synagogue’s full slate of programs and learning was set to begin. As it was his first year, the rabbi poured out his heart and soul during the holidays, leaving little energy to begin the season and with no battery backup. No time to mourn and no time to breathe. It took close to four weeks before the rabbi had a long moment to consider his friend’s untimely death…and then he finally wept. Say it with me…Superhero.

On the private side, the rabbi has his own family and life which on many occasions is sacrificed for the ‘good of the people.’ It is the great juggling act of the rabbi to find or make time for spouse, children, friends and family, not to mention personal growth time. The rabbi gets the chance to take off his cape at home, but for how long? How does his family ‘suffer’ for the ‘greater good?’ The High Holiday season ended eight weeks ago and soon it is Chanukah. Ask yourself if during this block of time the rabbi has relaxed at all? Has he taken the ‘pedal off the metal’ even for a moment?

We continue to experience rabbis in so many different situations without let-up. It is amazing. We encounter them in the synagogue and perhaps in our homes and at our tables. They will be in our inbox, our mail and our minds. They will attempt to alter our consciousness with words or stories or even a joke and with deeds. They will spare no effort to inspire us to greater religious, spiritual and emotional heights. They will ask us to go further with ourselves and to push ourselves beyond our imagination in the matters of Torah, prayer and mitzvot and we will ask more of them…Superhero.

So the next time we see the rabbi, let’s not waste the opportunity by playing the villain or the gossip and let’s not spend the time looking for the cape — trust me it’s there. Instead just put an arm around the rabbi and say thank you. Just remember not to squeeze too tight, because you might wrinkle the cape and he will need it tomorrow to fight another day.