It was at the graveside service of a recent funeral. A friend of the family walked by me to approach the casket to place some earth on it. She paused for a moment and said quietly, so that only I would hear it: you were meant to do this. It was absolutely intended as a compliment. I even took it as such, saying thank you, or that is kind of you. But something about it made me uneasy.
Over the last days, I’ve been thinking about why. One reason is that the words implied that the rabbinate is me, and I am it. There is no distinct identity, or even worse, there is only one identity, that of rabbi. This is a danger of the rabbinate in particular and clergy work in general. Others conflate your identity with your status, your role with your reality – and then you begin to do the same thing! You think of yourself first and foremost as a rabbi. Even in your own mind that is what primarily defines you.
I am reading Shakespeare’s As You Like It, just about half way through. In so many ways it is a play of mirrors. The forest is a mirror image of the civilized world. Characters mirror each other – there are two fools, two noble men, etc, each providing the other with the opportunity to see what they really are and what they are not. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a rabbi. Or if I do, that part of me is way down the line, there but sort of in the background, behind the eyes, a small part of who I am of what makes me me.
‘You were meant to do this.’ Not so much. I consider myself extremely lucky to have work to do that I truly enjoy, and that I can do competently. But I could have done many other things. This might sound crazy, but I honestly believe I could have been happy working as a house painter. I did that for 4 summers, and quite enjoyed it.
I’ve heard a number of rabbis say over the years that if they aren’t leading the service, if they aren’t in the pulpit, they generally don’t go to shul. Why bother?, one said to me. Not so for me. I would be perfectly content to sit in the pews. And one day I will. But for now, there is work that needs to be done. I’ll do it – after all, its my job.