If Not This...What?
A rabbi’s or cantor’s job description differs depending on whether he or she serves a congregation, Hillel, educational institution, Jewish communal organization the military or hospital. In all of these roles though, there are some tasks and responsibilities that all Jewish clergy should share.
In rabbinical school we spend countless hours studying Jewish law and texts learning how to understand and interpret these texts for ourselves and our communities. While there is tremendous value in learning for its own sake (Torah lishmah) there is, in the back of every student’s mind, a nagging question - how will this text or teaching allow those, with whom I share it, come closer to the Divine and participate in tikkun olam, the repair of the world.
This is, of course, the goal of all Jewish learning and living - to help us deepen our relationship with God and thereby feel the sacred tug of obligation to complete God's work of creation. That's why we do all that we do. We remember and observe Shabbat so that we are forced to carve out time in our hectic lives to turn from “the world of creation to the creation of the world” (Heschel); we say blessings and prayers to awaken our radical amazement at the world; we keep kosher, in part at least, to appreciate the value of all life, human and animal, and recognize that not everything in this world is ours for the taking.That Jews have lost sight of many of these greater goals and have fixated instead, on the path rather than the purpose, is one reason why Jewish obligation doesn't resonate with so many modern, liberal Jews.
But the "plonis" of the Jewish world are not the only ones who have been led astray. Jewish clergy have also become too focused on the path and not focused enough on why we're on that path to begin with. We perfect the art of calling pages in shul, preparing b'nai mitzvah students to perform from the bimah and planning the perfect family education program. We plan mitzvah days, write moving sermons and teach endless adult education classes. All of this work is holy and important. But when it comes without a focus on the purpose of Jewish learning and living then all of our sacred work ends up as “utter futility.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)
Rabbis and cantors must have the courage to stand up for Jewish values whether those values are threatened in our communities, amongst our colleagues or in the public square. We must insist on living the values that we teach. How dare we teach about pikuach nefesh (saving a soul) and not stand up and demand sensible gun regulation? How dare we preach about b’tzelem Elohim (every person being created in the image of God) and not protest when we see entire religions and ethnicities debased and demeaned in political discourse? How dare we, who recoil at the thought of stoning a divorcee or one who carries on Shabbat, not stand with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters when others condemn them as an abomination?
We are rabbis and cantors precisely because we believe that God has endowed humanity with tremendous power - the power to partner with God in the perfection of the world. After we've written our sermons, prepared our lesson plans and planned our programs it would behoove us to look beyond the tasks on our desks and in our inboxes and make sure that our efforts are pointing to the larger and greater goal - harnessing the power that we have been given and truly making our world a holier place.
If not this… what?