Monday, June 06, 2005

I’ve Seen it All Before, But...

When I began my career as a Rabbi, experience was an issue. At one point, a prominent synagogue in New York refused to consider my application due to inexperience. For years, I have heard the remark "you’re the Rabbi? But you’re so young!". (By the way, I’m finally past that stage, a clear sign of middle age setting in). For a Rabbi, experience and age are assets, enabling him to somewhat resemble the visage of a "true" Rabbi (i.e., someone who looks Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments).

Yet, after nearly 15 years in the rabbinate, having finally conquered the disabilities of youth and inexperience, I have encountered a new problem: too much experience.

I first encountered it at a funeral. An elderly woman had passed away, and I was wrapping up my preparatory meeting with her daughter. As I was leaving, I put on my rabbinic face of earnest concern, and told her in a soothing tone how sorry I was about her loss. Unfortunately, this woman worked as a secretary for a pulpit Rabbi, and had seen this spiel many a time before at her own office. She immediately turned to me and said: "come on Rabbi! You’ve seen this all before, haven’t you?".

It was then I realized I had too much experience.

With experience, the lessons of humiliating mistakes and proud triumphs get seared into your memory and become second nature. Unfortunately, at the same time, experience burns out emotional nerve endings. Whether it’s weddings or funerals or Bar Mitzvas, when you do something over and over again, it’s just another routine. Emotions that flow automatically at wedding and funeral number one are much harder to access at number one hundred or number two hundred. I imagine that even Liz Taylor found it hard to get very excited about her ninth wedding.

It is tempting to replace the lost excitement with a bored cynicism. Having done it all before, seasoned veterans proudly adopt a world weary, casual attitude to life’s peak moments. Getting excited is for neophytes, for people too inexperienced to know better. When you’ve seen it all, life’s just reruns, n’est ce pas?

Frankly, I can’t stand cynicism. To me, cynicism is merely a disguise for emotional impotence. As I searched for a way to remain emotionally engaged in my work, I came across a useful bit of Talmudic wisdom on coping with the dulling nature of routine.

Boredom during prayer during prayer is a common problem. Yes, prayer is a spiritual peak moment when one is in direct contact with the divine. However, constantly praying three times daily can transform pristine prayer into a pure monotony. To prevent this from happening, the Talmud recommends three responses. First, one must always come with an appropriate attitude. Never approach prayer with an attitude of annoyance, muttering to yourself "Oh no; I have to pray again!!". Second, always pray with appropriate words, words of humility and sensitivity. And finally, try to find a new insight to add to each day’s prayers.

This is an exceptional piece of advice. The difference between rote prayers and real prayers is attitude, focus and creativity. The same prayer can continue to inspire, even if you repeat it a thousand times a year.

This Talmudic insight is useful in countering the numbing effects of any repetition. First of all, you have to refuse to treat peak moments casually. A wedding can never be "just another wedding", and a funeral is never something that "threw your schedule off". Never treat another person’s peak moment as your own burden.

In addition, language is key. Even if you’ve been to 500 shiva houses, that doesn’t mean that now it’s simply a place to shmooze, tell jokes, and talk about your golf game. Humble words pave the way for a sincere connection.

And finally, find something new. Often when I am preparing for a funeral, someone describes their mother as a "typical Jewish mother". They even assume their mother’s story is boring, telling me "I’m sure a lot of people say this about their mothers". Yet despite the disclaimer, I search for how this woman was unusual, what part of her biography made her different. We all know how wonderful the ideal Jewish mother can be; but isn’t it nice to hear about the little acts of kindness that made this specific woman unique?

Yes, I’ve seen it all before. Even so, this rerun still matters. As long as each Jewish mother has a different recipe for chicken soup, as long as each young couple has their own "story" about how they met, I pledge to keep my focus, and refuse to allow remarkable peak moments to become a dreary routine.

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