By Rabbi David Z. Vaisberg
Pirkei Avot 2:2
Rabban Gamliel, son of R. Yehudah HaNassi said: Torah study goes well with derech eretz (work), since the toil of both of them makes misdeed scarce. Any Torah study that is not accompanied by work will in the end cease and lead to misdeed. And all who serve the community should do so for the sake of heaven. For the merit of their forefathers assists them and their righteousness endures forever. [And God says:] “I will bestow great reward upon you as if you had accomplished it [alone].” (Translation from Pirkei Avot: Ethics of the Fathers, Ed. Yosef Marcus, Brooklyn: Kehot, 2009.)
I never really appreciated this passage until now, looking back on my first month as a rabbi working in a synagogue community.
Around the time that I was 16 years old, one of my peers said to me, at NFTY-NEL camp, “You know, you should be a rabbi!” I responded, “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it.” Actually, I had been thinking about it for two years already, excited about the prospect of a life devoted to God and the Jewish people. I remember using countless hours after school for reading up on Kabbalah and learning to play all the NFTY songs on my guitar. And there definitely were more than a few lunch periods spent reading through the Chumash in my school library.
Later however, in college, I had a distressing revelation: when it came down to it, I knew almost nothing about Jewish tradition. Even though I had spent so much time preparing for my rabbinic journey, I had never studied a page of Talmud and I could not tell you a thing about Spinoza, or any other Jewish philosopher. Rashi was just another name on a wine bottle. I realized that the thing that excited me most about matriculating at HUC-JIR was that I would actually get to learn Torah, in an intensive, structured environment.
I loved my time at HUC. I adored spending days poring over ancient and modern texts, looking up meanings for obscure Hebrew phrases, and traveling through time and space learning our people’s history. I swam in Torah, and on most days, it felt better than the waters of the Kinneret on my skin. During the more stress-filled periods, friends recently graduated would offer words of comfort, saying, “Don’t worry, the real rabbinate so much different than HUC.”
And I now agree that some parts are different, but some parts are still similar. I still get to learn. I do need to structure my day to allow time for learning, but one of the best parts of being a rabbi is that you need to study continually in order to run the kinds of programming and services offered in a synagogue.
What is different though, is that I’m actually using Torah for something more than my own learning. I’m using its timeless teachings for reaching out and making a difference. I have suddenly clued in to the fact that ultimately, my job as a congregational rabbi is to bring meaning and goodness into life. And it really doesn’t get better than this.
Without the work of the rabbinate (the derech eretz), I would have been keeping Torah to myself. With it, I am seeing the Jewish tradition come alive in my congregants, and in all the Jews I have encountered thus far. Serving as a rabbi seems to ground all the learning I did in my time as a student, and reminds me of the kind of Jewish life I am supposed to live. Although I cannot claim always to be working for the sake of heaven, I must be doing something right because I feel lifted, mentally and spiritually, by our ancestors and by my wonderful congregants, who have been warm, welcoming, patient, understanding, and helpful along the way.
The passage from Avot finishes with the heavenly promise “I will bestow great reward upon you as if you had accomplished it alone.” I don’t know that I have accomplished much in my first month, but with all the support from my community, colleagues, and family, I am certain that I have not accomplished anything alone. I do, however, feel tremendously rewarded, both in my life and in my work as a rabbi.
David Z. Vaisberg serves as Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Edison, NJ.