What I’ve Learned in 40 Years as a Rabbi
What I’ve Learned in 40 Years as a Rabbi
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
Kol Nidre, Temple Chai, 2021
I am going to name 10 things, and I’d like you to tell me what they all have in common:
- The number of days from the beginning of the month of Elul until Yom Kippur
- The number of days that it rained on Noah and the ark
- The number of days that the ark rested on the top of the mountain
- The number of days that Moses spent with God on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah
- The number of days that the spies scouted out the Promised Land
- The number of years the Israelites journeyed to get there
- The number of days until the destruction of Nineveh, according to Jonah’s prophecy
- The number of years that the judge Deborah ruled, as well as kings David and Solomon
- The number of measures of water in a mikveh
10.The age when a person achieves a level of wisdom and maturity that opens them up to study Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism
I think you know the answer. In each case, the number is forty. Forty is a hugely significant number in our tradition. And it is especially meaningful to me this year. On May 17, 2021, I celebrated forty years since my ordination as a rabbi. Incredibly enough, I graduated from rabbinical school forty years ago.
I have spent a lot of time this year reflecting on lessons learned during these forty years. I’d like to share a few of them with you this evening. What are my most important takeaways from 40 years of loving and caring for the Jewish people and Jewish communities. Number One:
The greatest gift you can offer to another human being is the gift of listening to them deeply and fully. Two ears, one mouth. Listen with full attention and pay attention to your body language. Too often we listen with no thought beyond our own response. We all long to be heard and understood. Especially with all the distractions of technology, it is rare to open our hearts to someone and feel that they are fully engaged. You can be that person to someone, and it will be incredibly moving and meaningful to people whom you love and care for. Become a great listener and you will never lack for friends.
Next- When you think of reaching out to someone, reach out. Make the phone call- it only takes a moment. It amazes me how often I think of someone fleetingly, don’t follow through on trying to connect, only to discover within a day or two that they are experiencing something important in their lives, positively or negatively, and could really use some support. I am learning to listen and pay attention to that still small voice.
I’d like to share two responses that people offer in difficult times that I have not found to be helpful. The first is- “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” If I am drowning in pain and sorrow, and this is God’s doing, I would like to punch God in the face. I’m glad, God, that you have SO much confidence in me. As Rabbi Chiya is reported in the Talmud saying about his own suffering, “I desire neither my suffering nor its reward.” (Berachot 5b) We may HAVE to handle tragedy, but it is not at all comforting, in my experience, to suggest to someone that God is inflicting their nightmare as a sign of faith in their ability to rise to the occasion.
The second response- “Everything happens for a reason.” No, actually, it doesn’t. I have heard those who experience trauma use this notion to comfort themselves. If they find it comforting that’s wonderful, and I would never suggest otherwise if someone who is hurting finds this meaningful.
As a rabbi, though, I have witnessed too much really awful tragedy. Tragedy that, in my mind, has no explanation. I would NEVER suggest to someone that there is some cosmic answer that will ultimately explain their loss. Maimonides explains that a certain of evil in the world is due simply to our physical nature, and I’m with him. Horrible, terrible stuff happens for no good reason at all.
It’s time to let go of the “battle narrative” when it comes to illness. “The problem with this paradigm,” writes Barbara Coombs Lee, “is that death is certain. So, if to die is to “lose,” then every human being, no matter how courageous, persistent, loving or eager to live, is a “loser” who “gave up.” That can’t be right.” She urges us to stop stealing the time that people with terminal illnesses may have left to enjoy their remaining days by encouraging them to “ignore their intuitive understanding and fight on.” You should make it a priority this year to read her book, Finish Strong. And to stop suggesting to people that they are so strong that they can overcome a terrible diagnosis.
Suffering, I have discovered, is not a competitive sport. Chris Cleave wrote, “I am telling you, trouble is like the ocean. It covers two thirds of the world.” Everyone has tsooris, and a person who is hurting does not need to hear mine in the midst of trying to tell me theirs. Just listen.
It took me a long time to learn to avoid “the autobiographical response” in conversation. It was an uncomfortable lesson. The autobiographical response means, that as you are opening up your heart and sharing your story, I reply by telling you MY similar story- or, my aunt’s, my neighbor’s, my co-workers.
Early in my career, I assumed, incorrectly, that if someone shared their story with me and I replied with my own parallel experience, that this was a way of bonding and connecting with them. Wrong. What it ACTUALLY is is a way of hijacking the conversation, from the other person. I have discovered that when I think of an autobiographical response, I should open my mouth, and then close it. And, guess what? The conversation proceeds quite smoothly!
And, apropos my brilliant input? I have discovered that quite often people are not looking for advice. Perhaps they just need to have their story heard, or maybe they process what they need to do by talking out loud? They could be seeking confirmation or affirmation of their perspective. OR, they could, actually, be looking for guidance.
You won’t know unless you ask. I have come right out and said, “Are you looking for advice?”, and had people continue with their tale as if they hadn’t even heard the question. That non-answer is certainly an answer. If they do want your opinion, trust me, they will ask for it. If not, the best response is to pause every few minutes and say something like, “Let me make sure I understand,” and then paraphrase what you have heard.
If you’ve gotten it right, you will see their relief manifest physically. They may give a big sigh or exhale, their shoulders may release some tension, they may offer a resounding, “YES!” And sometimes that’s all people need- just to know that someone is listening with kindness and compassion.
I love the way Rabbi Elie Spitz expresses it in his book, Healing From Despair. (pp. 122-123)- “To listen to another person is to bring comfort through connection. . . In listening to a soul in pain, sometimes all we can offer is mindful listening. And in that act of listening, we validate that the soul is worthy of time and attention, that the burdens that cause pain are real and heavy, and that good continues to exist in a broken world. Our very presence as caring listeners attests to the kindness that exists in an imperfect but beautiful world.”
And by the way, even if you DIDN’T get it right, if you didn’t understand perfectly, they will still be very touched by your attention and will simply re-group and explain in a different way.
As a rabbi, I can get away with occasionally asking, “So, since you’re here in my office, I imagine that you are looking for advice?” Most of the time, that is the case. Then, I make sure I totally and completely understand the situation, I ask appropriate questions, and only then do I share my thoughts.
I spent 18 years as the rabbi of a conservative congregation, where there were lots and lots of rules that I was expected to enforce. I did so dutifully, even when I didn’t particularly agree with the requirement. Once a person wanted to come to the synagogue to do some baking for Shabbat on a holiday when the temple was closed and cooking was prohibited. I apologetically explained the situation, and, only moments later, remembered that it’s possible to create an “eruv tavshilin,” a special ritual to create an opportunity to cook for Shabbat on a holiday. This was before cell phones, so I had to wait until I got to the office to phone her, but it was too late. I don’t think she has forgiven me to this day.
I was completely adamant that I was 100% correct in my rabbinic guidance, but that ultimately meant nothing. My takeaway? Sometimes there are things that are more important than being right. I have found that this principle is just as important in my personal life as it is professionally. When I want to stamp my feet and cry out, “But, But, But!”, I have learned, or, I am learning, to just let it go. Not everything is worth arguing about or fighting for. Peace in communities and equanimity in relationships are equally significant, and sometimes MORE significant. The older I get, the more I am learning to prioritize when it is truly vital to argue for my perspective, and when I can live with another person’s perspective being the last word.
Getting along in relationships is not easy for so many reasons. Relationships are complicated. People have many needs , and often confuse their needs with their wants. Even so, as a rabbi who works hard to meet those needs and those wants, I have found that it is best to find 99 reasons to yes to a request rather than 1 reason to say no. To repeat, many, or perhaps MOST things are not worth arguing about or insisting on, and people are SO appreciative if you can find a way to say yes!
I have also discovered that when folks screw up, they don’t need me to call it to their attention. I have found that most of us are perfectly capable of beating themselves up and bemoaning their mistakes and wrongdoing, without me reminding them. Aren’t we all here together for the next 24 hours to do precisely that? To consider our errors and resolve to do better? Unless they are sociopaths, and then they aren’t going to listen to me anyway, it’s not my job to berate people, it’s my job to help them grow and learn and understand that we all can benefit from more kindness.
I have learned never to underestimate people’s ability to feel hurt. Even from something trivial. Even from something that is meant to be positive. We are all walking around with so much insecurity that sometimes the simplest thing can be totally and painfully misinterpreted. I recall once greeting someone on a Friday night with the words, “It’s so nice to see you.” Their response? “ Are you implying that we haven’t been here in a while?” Another time I thanked someone for helping to clear the tables after a kiddush, mentioning how nice it was they were doing so. Their response? “Well, you haven’t taken the time to get to know how nice we really are!” People’s feelings are SO close to the surface, so ready to be hurt. You can never, ever, be too cautious regarding the power of words.
On Yom Kippur, we reach out and seek forgiveness from each other, and we offer compassion and forgiveness to ourselves as well. In most cases, I think, that’s enough. There’s enough guilt to go around, I don’t need to add to it.
And now, to the worst part of being a rabbi. Funerals are one thing, and while it may seem odd, it feels good to be the person who can offer strength and comfort when the family and the community is struggling with grief and sorrow. There is one exception though. Every time I walk parents to the grave of their children, I hope and pray that it is the last time I will be called upon to be in that place. Barbara Kingsolver wrote in The Poisonwood Bible, “We were all cut down together by the knife of our own hope, for if there is any single thing that everyone hopes for most dearly, it must be this: that the youngest outlive the oldest.” We all intuitively sense the unnaturalness of parents burying children; I’ll never get used to it.
Finally, I’d like to share this favorite teaching. The Torah includes the word “V’Natnu”, “they shall give,” and commentators note that the word is a palindrome, that is, it reads the same from right to left and left to right. (HOLD UP A SIGN OF THE WORD) Their conclusion? As we give, we receive back. And as we receive from others, we give to them.
This totally defines my 40 years of rabbinic work. I have given to the Jewish community, and I have received back SO much more. I wake up each day excited to learn and to teach, to pray and to engage, to comfort and to share joy. It has been an incredible blessing, and I can only express my most profound gratitude to all of you at Temple Chai for allowing me to be your rabbi for 15 years. Thank you- I am so humbly grateful.
 Lee, Barbara Coombs, Finish Strong, CO: Compassion and Choices, 2019, p. 80
 Ibid., p. 82
 Little Bee, p. 138
 P. 370