At the beginning of August I received multiple e-mails from colleagues and organizations, all urging me to read the same newspaper article. The New York Times had published a feature on clergy burnout, and many of my colleagues felt it was required reading for rabbis.
The reporter cited multiple studies, each more fascinating then the next. The Presbyterian Church found that since the 1970’s the number of ministers leaving their jobs during their first five years of work had quadrupled. The Evangelical Lutheran Church found that 13 percent of their ministers were taking antidepressants. And my favorite was a seven-year study at Duke University, of 1,726 Methodist ministers in North Carolina. Compared with congregants, the ministers reported significantly higher rates of arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma. This study fascinated me. First of all, who knew there were 1,726 Methodist ministers in North Carolina? And more remarkably, it took the learned professors at Duke University a full seven years to learn something that every Jewish mother knows: being a Rabbi is “not a job for a Jewish boy!”
1. It Makes Sense
Clergy burnout is understandable. The work of rabbis, as well as teachers and organizational professionals, is community work, the hardest work in the world. It’s hard in any community, but in the Jewish community….oy!
Communal leadership is very difficult. Indeed Rashi famously quips that if you place the burden of communal leadership on someone’s shoulders, “they will disintegrate on their own”. The Rabbinate is not a job for a Jewish boy.
Twenty years ago, when I’d first started to attend rabbinic conventions, I’d listen to older colleagues talk about burnout and think they were crazy. What were they burnt out about? To me, being a Rabbi was such a thrill, such a privilege, that I planned to do it for free after I retired!
But now I understand those colleagues. I too am getting burnt out.
Now, I’m not embarrassed by burnout, because I know I’m in good company. For example, listen to what Moses says to God, after another one of the Jews complaints in the desert:
“Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant..?”
I would say, Moses sounds burnt out!
Or listen to the words of Maimonides, in a letter to a student who wants to visit:
“I will write you my daily schedule:
I live in Fostat, and the Sultan lives Cairo. The distance between them is 4000 cubits [a mile and a half]. My duties to the Sultan are very heavy.…….by the time I come back to Fostat, half the day is gone. Under no circumstances do I come earlier. And I am ravenously hungry by then. When I come home, my foyer is always full of people – Jews and non-Jews, important people and not, judges and policemen, people who love me and people who hate me, a mixture of people, all of whom have been waiting for me to come home.... I apologize and ask that they should be kind enough to give me a few minutes to eat. That is the only meal I take in twenty-four hours…….Patients go in and out until nightfall, and sometimes – I swear to you by the Torah – it is two hours into the night before they are all gone. I talk to them and prescribe for them even while lying down on my back from exhaustion. …..On Shabbat, the whole congregation, or at least the majority of it, comes to my house after morning services, and I instruct the members of the community as to what they should do during the entire week. We learn together in a weak fashion until the afternoon. Then they all go home. Some of them come back and I teach more deeply between the afternoon and evening prayers…That is my daily schedule.”
Now, after writing all of this, Maimonides throws in the kicker:
“And I’ve only told you a little of what you would see if you would come”.
So I’m not alone in burnout. From Moses to Moses, burn out has been the Rabbi’s lot.
Rabbi’s are idealists, and they expect a lot of the world. And so we get disappointed all the time.
I can tell you that I am burnt out because I expected more.
I expected more of Jewish leaders. Today, there are entire blogs devoted to collecting news articles about the failings and foolishness of Jewish leaders and Rabbis. These misbehaving rabbis are my colleagues, and sometimes they are people I deeply respect. And so it hurts me personally, when I have to read about stupid rabbinic pronouncements: like the Rabbis who write a book advocating the murder of Arab babies, or the Rabbis insisting that parents in Lakewood should not call the police to report sexual abuse. Even worse are the scandals, the rabbis who make headlines for crimes ranging from shaking down hedge fund operators to sexually harassing students. Each scandal hurts, and each one makes me a bit more cynical.
I also expected more of the Jewish community. Teaching Judaism in North America feels like a Sisyphean task, like pushing a boulder up a hill with the boulder constantly rolling down again. We are assimilating rapidly; just look at the marriages page in New York Times on any given Sunday, and you can see how many of our children are marrying non-Jews. And then you turn to the other pages of the newspaper, and read about young Jews who are passionate opponents of the State of Israel. Even at Brandeis University, hundreds of students mobilized against a visit from the Israeli Ambassador. How is it that young Jews are sometimes Israel’s greatest enemies?
I also expected more from God. Sure, when I started in the rabbinate, I knew intellectually bad things happen to good people; after all, I had read the book of Job. But I had never seen with my own eyes the pain and suffering families endure. But now I have. How can you not question when you see good people suffer?
Some people have remarked to me that it must be “easier” now for me to deal with difficult funerals, considering I have twenty years of experience. Actually, the opposite is true. If you go to one tragic funeral, you imagine that this is the only one, and that it is a unique event that happens once in a lifetime. But if you go to ten tragic funerals, you have a terrible sinking feeling in your stomach, because you know full well that if there have been ten tragic funerals, there will be an eleventh too.
Yes, I’m disappointed in God. I’ve seen too much suffering, too much injustice.
I’m actually most disappointed in myself. I don’t feel comfortable talking publicly about my own soul and psyche, but suffice it to say, if I could go into a time machine and meet myself from twenty years ago, I think that in some ways, twenty-something Chaim would be disappointed. He would expect more of me as a Rabbi, husband, father and person.
I’m burned out and disappointed.
2. God is Also Disappointed
But burnout is not a rabbinic preserve. I won’t ask for hands, but I’d bet most of the people in this room 40 and older have also been burnt out. In our twenties, we have an ideal vision of life, and then life turns that vision upside down. We all get disappointed, and then we get burnt out.
But the disappointed among us are not alone. Truth is, God is disappointed every day. The Talmud in Avodah Zara says that during “the second three hours of the day God sits in judgment on the whole world, and when He sees that the world is so guilty as to deserve destruction, He transfers Himself from the seat of Justice to the seat of Mercy”. Remarkably enough, God is so disappointed in humanity every day, He wants to destroy the world.
And if God is overwhelmed by the daily judgment, imagine what happens on Rosh Hashanah!!
And if God is always disappointed by judgment, today must be God’s day of disappointment!!
Wouldn’t God be burnt out by now?
3. Find Your Shofar
But the lesson of this Talmudic passage is that disappointment is daily part of life, and a fixed part of the universe, from God on down. Even so, God manages to find a way to get over his disappointment. The lesson is that even when things don’t measure up, don’t get disappointed. There is always a good reason to love life; all you have to do is find your shofar.
Consider this Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah. It says that the moment God hears the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, He moves from the throne of justice to the throne of mercy.
How does the shofar affect such a dramatic change?
I think the answer is that when God listens to the shofar He sees a different side of humanity. The ram’s horn is a symbol of the akeidah, a permanent reminder of Abraham’s willingness to say “Hineni”, I am ready. Abraham stood ready to sacrifice everything until the last moment, when God allowed Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead.
And even if God sees all of the stupid and petty things man has done, God remembers that when the chips are down, man can say “Hineni”, “I am ready”, just like Abraham did.
When the chips are down, we aren’t all that disappointing.
There are times we feud, yes…but there also the times when we run to the hospital and mend old rifts. (But why does it have to wait for the hospital though?)
And although the Jewish people seem to be falling off the edge of a cliff, whenever the chips are down, Jews have always found a way to survive. 65 years ago, after the Shoah, we managed to survive, and even thrive. Think of the survivors in 1945, emaciated, broken and battered. Yet three years later these very same survivors are in Israel, fighting in the War of Independence.
And for myself, I can look back at one or two things I've done, and say that if my entire career had been for this one thing it would have been worth it.
When we are burnt out, we need to do what God does, and go grab our shofar and see the best side of our community, ourselves, and of the Jewish future. When the chips are down, we see who we really are; and remarkably, we’re usually a lot better than we thought we were!
4. Why Does He Want to Be Disappointed?
But grabbing a shofar is not enough.
The strange thing about disappointment is that it seems to be part of God’s plan. In the Talmudic text we cited, it says that God gets disappointed every day. In the Midrash we cited, it says God is disappointed every Rosh Hashanah. And indeed, Rashi cites a Midrash that says that even during creation, God wanted to create a world that would withstand judgment, only to realize that it was impossible.
So I have a simple question; why does God keep disappointing Himself? If at the very beginnings he knew that the world would come up short when judged, why does he keep trying to judge the world? Isn’t it exhausting?
It may be exhausting, but it’s worth it. A failed judgment reminds us to come home again. Judging ourselves reminds us of who we really are. All of us start with a dream – a plan, no different than God’s. We have high hopes. But we get sidetracked and lost.
Being a good spouse gets lost because we’re too distracted.
Being a good parent gets lost because we’re too busy.
Having good values get lost because we’re too ambitious.
The road map gets lost. We forget who we are.
And so we need to judge ourselves, to be disappointed, if only to remind ourselves of the original plan, of who we wanted to be, who we were supposed to be, and in a sense who we really are. Disappointment leads us back home, and reminds us of our ideals and goals.
Rav Soloveitchik explains that Teshuva, repentance, is a way of recovering our true selves. Sin is a by-product of getting lost chasing foolish dreams and trivial goals. Teshuva is returning back to our true identity. He writes:
“While, in sin, man misidentifies and alienates himself from himself, in the case of Teshuva he reverses the process of misidentification: he discovers himself, and "returns" to his true self.”
Burnout is our soul’s way of telling us to come home again; and on this holiday of disappointment, we need to remember to come home, to do Teshuva, and get back to our true selves.
Or, if I can put it another way, we need to find our envelope.
5. Find Your Envelope
Let me explain.
Dr. David Pelcovitz visited Montreal a few months ago and told a powerful story about a 9 year old girl. The girl’s mother had encouraged her to volunteer by visiting an elderly lady who had lost most of her eyesight. One day, while chatting with the young girl, the elderly lady explained that she could recover her eyesight if she would have a small operation; but because she was an older woman on a fixed income, she lacked the resources to pay for this expensive procedure. Inspired to action, the girl went home and told her mother that she was going to do a fundraiser to pay for the elderly woman’s operation. The mother smiled at her daughter’s good intentions, but assumed, like most parents, that her daughter’s naive dream would soon disappear.
The next day, the girl goes to school and begins to raise money. She goes from class to class, from teacher to teacher, and at the end of the day, after all the change had been exchanged into bills, the girl had a grand total of 83 dollars. She took the thick envelope stuffed with singles, and visited her elderly friend. Not knowing much about contemporary medical economics, the girl announced to her elderly friend that she had raised the money for the operation! So, the young girl and the elderly woman took a short walk over to the local Ophthalmologist’s office.
The doctor examines the elderly woman, and says yes, she is a candidate for the procedure, and he can do it right away. At that point, the young girl chirps in and says that she will pay for the procedure, and produces the envelope with the 83 dollars.
The doctor does the operation.
The girl comes home, and reports to her mother the day’s events. The mother is mortified; she assumes that her daughter has somehow misled the doctor. She runs to the doctor’s office to apologize, and to negotiate a way to pay him the balance. As the mother starts to talk , the doctor cuts her off in middle, and opens his jacket. In his inside pocket is the envelope, stuffed with singles; he had not put the cash away. He tells the mother that this envelope was far more precious to him than money; this envelope reminded him of goodness of humanity, of the goodness of a nine year old girl, and why he became a doctor in the first place.
Today, all of us have to find the envelope in the pocket. We need to remember who we really are. The envelope, our inner goodness, is always there, waiting to be rediscovered.
When we’re burnt out, when we are disappointed in who we have become, all we have to do today is grab a shofar, and find our envelope.
We can always find our shofar, and take pride that when the chips are down we will respond to the call of hineni.
And one day, when we get too lost in our ambitions, a little girl will come to our office with envelope, an envelope that reminds us of who we really are.