Not Everything I Needed to Know in Life I Learned in Rabbinical School

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Nathaniel Helfgot


A few years back, a young man who was completing his rabbinical studies and serving as a fellow/teaching assistant at SAR High School approached me with a simple question: “What things did you not learn in rabbinical school that you wished you had known about as a Jewish educator and community rabbi?” (I serve as a shul rabbi in addition to my daily work as a mehanekh at SAR High School.) I tried to demur that as in any profession such as medicine or journalism, there are a million things that you cannot prepare for, and your greatest training occurs on the job. This wonderful young man, however, pressed me for at least one or two major things that I felt could have been explored and really examined in advance during the years of rabbinical training and early years of mentorship. After a few minutes of thought, I shared with him two insights from my work as mehanekh for over thirty years and as a shul rabbi for close to fifteen years. The challenges presented here are not insurmountable, and many excellent klei kodesh confront them with much success, integrity, and ingenuity; but, they are real nonetheless.

First, as a community rabbi, and to some extent as an educator, you are often exposed to a tremendous amount of pain and suffering of members of your kehillah and others who come to you for succor and simple guidance. People unburden themselves about difficult life problems, choices, or hurt that they are carrying with them. And you work hard to be an active, compassionate, and empathetic listener. You gently suggest advice, offer support, and share names of professionals who may be even more helpful in addressing the whole gamut of physical, mental, and pastoral challenges brought to your doorstep. And all the while, you carry those pains and travails in your heart and soul, confidentially and silently throughout your workday and beyond.

People will share intimate problems relating to themselves and to their relationships to their spouses, their children, and their extended families. You are often privy to difficult financial challenges that only you are told about and only you can work behind the scenes to alleviate. You are exposed to difficult battles of divorce, custody issues, accusations, alienation between family members, sickness, and pain that is sometimes overwhelming. These private pains and burdens that a rabbinic professional carries will often weigh heavily on the pastor. Moreover, these conversations are confidential; the rabbi cannot share any of the pain he carries with others, not even his spouse or family. Of course, this does not stop members of the community from opining on situations without having the full understanding of important details that play into the decisions of clergy members and lay officers.

There are moments when one simply cries in empathy and sympathy from all the emotional, financial, mental, medical, and familial challenges that congregants face.

By raising the issue of the emotional toll of the profession, I am not speaking primarily about the issue of rabbinic “burnout,” which is an issue in and of itself due to factors of excessive burdens of teaching, pastoral work, or other communal loads. That is something that is discussed more today in the training of young rabbis and ongoing rabbinic education and conferences. Feelings of burnout can be addressed through proper setting of boundaries, carving out downtime for oneself and one’s family, a good exercise routine, and dibbuk haverim (connections with friends).

Rather, I speak here of the powerful experiences and burdens that the rabbi or educator carries, especially involving confidentiality and discretion, which are unique to the helping professions. Learning about and being exposed to this reality in a real and systematic way would do much to prepare young leaders entering the rabbinic profession. During rabbinical training, it would be beneficial for rabbis at various stages in their careers to share their challenges with the students, discussing it and giving them the tools to process it in the early years of training and beyond, in order to prepare the students mentally and emotionally for these challenges.

The second issue involves expectations set for the rabbinic role. Entering and working in the fields of avodat ha-kodesh is meaningful and gratifying. One is able to impart Torah, support people to grow spiritually, advise people in difficult situations, and help young adults, families, and older individuals flourish and be productive and integral members of the community. Moreover, one has the opportunity to get involved in larger communal and national projects that are satisfying and help foster the health and well-being of Klal Yisrael. There are deep feelings of fulfillment and joy that emerge in one’s commitment to spreading Torah and Judaism. In this context, people recognize that there are sacrifices that will need to be made, and these are often discussed in formal and informal settings during the years of rabbinic training. These decisions involve weighing factors such as economics, stress, politics, moving away from family members, and other concerns. Rabbinical programs have in recent decades been more cognizant of discussing these issues and dealing with them.

However, everyone who goes into hinukh or the rabbinate must come to appreciate another element of sacrifice in a deeper way. A good rav or mehanekh must be ready to sacrifice a measure―some more, some less―of one’s own personal spiritual growth and Torah experiences and achievements. It is no doubt true that one gains tremendously, spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally as a Jew and as a human being in coming into day-to-day contact with Am Yisraelba-asher hu sham. To take one example, I have been enriched in my learning of sugyot that I thought I knew so well by the simple questions and insights of sixteen-year-old kids learning Gemara for the first time and seeing it through fresh eyes. They have not been jaundiced by the “acceptable” range of questions that exist in the standard beit midrash, and they have forced me to think more deeply and expansively about Torah texts. Lay people have challenged me to think more seriously and deeply about issues of Halakhah, Jewish thought, and public policy in ways that have enriched my Torah knowledge and yirat shamayim.

And yet, it is indisputable that there are spiritual tradeoffs that one experiences by the choices that one makes to teach in a standard yeshiva high school or to serve in a standard Orthodox pulpit. Unless one is among the 1% who work and live in the rarified bubble of a high-level yeshiva framework as a rosh yeshiva or ram, or whose shul is full of musmakhim and rabbanim (which has its own unique challenges), one lives among Am Yisrael in all its grandeur and messy reality. It is here in the trenches that much of rabbinical work is done: for instance, leading a standard daily minyan in a yeshiva high school in which one must take attendance, keep discipline, and make sure that the flow of the davening is working all within the pressured time constraints of a school schedule. The leisurely davening pace and intensity of the yeshiva minyan of one’s semikhah years are a thing of the past. One teaches Torah for sure but also―if he or she is true to their calling―spends hundreds of hours a year making up and marking worksheets, exams, and papers, meeting with parents, and attending meetings galore.

A shul rabbi also does not have the ability to simply choose one’s own preferred minyan on a particular weekday or Shabbat morning if the rabbi is looking for something different or another type of tefillah experience. In the context of one’s responsibilities to run a shul minyan on Shabbat, a rabbi has to worry about a host of responsibilities, including the upcoming derashah, who is getting the aliyot, who is missing in shul, who is ill, and the entire choreography of the davening. Moreover, there is the important and essential work of communal life: lengthy staff meetings and broader communal commitments, preparing shiurim, meeting with baalei battim, raising funds, and the like. All of these endeavors take their toll and time. By the very nature of avodat ha-kodesh and its time and emotional commitments, one’s ability to simply carve out the space to learn that extra perek in Zevahim in depth, or read another volume of Rav Shagar, or work on one’s own avodat Hashem, or participate in tefillah in hitbodedut are somewhat compromised.

This challenge is not new, and many of our predecessors confronted and spoke of it. Mori ve-Rabi, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein ztl, was very fond of a letter written by Rav Avraham Eliyahu Kaplan ztl, head of the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin and a young Torah scholar and up-and-coming gadol be-Yisrael, before his untimely death at the age of 34. In the letter, written to his wife and later published in the collection of his writings Be-Ikvot Ha-Yir’ah, he discusses the challenges he is facing in trying to set up a teacher’s institute. In one of Rav Lichtenstein’s later essays, he quotes this letter of Rav Avraham Eliyahu Kaplan directly:

Reared in Lithuania and trained in its premier yeshivot at the turn of the twentieth century, he [Rav Avraham Eliyahu] subsequently moved to Germany, where he headed the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary. Acutely aware of some of the deficiencies of religious education in both countries, he resolved to revamp it; and to this end, he sought to focus upon teacher training. In the process, he plunged into the nitty-gritty of establishing a quality institution―raising funds, acquiring quarters, structuring a curriculum, attracting students. In the letter, he enumerates and describes the pell-mell of his multiple businesses; and then, suddenly, the yeshiva bahur in him comes to the fore, reminding him of his roots, as that bahur’s inner voice reproaches him for reducing his commitment to them:

But from the midst of this multifaceted labor, my soul hears a voice, speaking: “And what is to be of Torah? That Torah over which you labored throughout your youth, upon which you spent all your thoughts, and which became, for you, a source of life and gratification―will you now leave and desert it? Shall this be the telos of Torah and its reward?!”

True, his current activity is also geared to the study and dissemination of Torah―to young tyros who are setting out on their lifelong vocation, and will, thence, in turn, transmit what they have absorbed to their students. And yet,

And yet, at bottom, there is no place here for that broad and illuminating subject, so lucid and majestic, which was called lomdut; that glorious excursion in my mind’s dinghy on the waves of the sea of the Talmud and its commentaries. Indeed, a person must be a great [t]zaddik and saint in order to be able to sacrifice Torah proper upon the altar of Torah; so as to leave Torah, to labor on its behalf [emphasis added].[1]

Having rich conversations, process groups, and discussions around the two issues enumerated above during rabbinical studies and beyond can only help young idealistic people going into the fields of avodat ha-kodesh be more effective and fulfilled. They will have a better sense of what to expect and the need to confront and adjust expectations, work on their own avodat Hashem, and find modalities of spiritual self-care and proper balance and spiritual equilibrium that will allow them to flourish and become the best mehankhim and rabbanim that they can be.

[1] R. Aharon Lichtenstein, “To Double Business Bound: Reflection on the Divided Lives of Ovdei Hashem,” in Varieties of Jewish Experience (Brooklyn, NY: Ktav, 2011), 268.


Nathaniel Helfgot is rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom, Teaneck, NJ and chair of the Torah She-Be-Al Peh Department at SAR High School in New York City.