The Post Holiday Blues

here a text of my Shabbat sermon from 10/18/14

You may wonder this morning how rabbis feel at this time of year, when the fall holiday cycle has finally ended, when the HHDs are behind us, when we’ve celebrated in our sukkot, when we’ve shaken our lulavs and etrogs, and danced with the Torahs.  There is no question this is a busy time of year for rabbis – all of the sermons to write and deliver, all of the services to lead, and then in the few days each week that aren’t yom tov or Shabbat days, trying to do the rest of your work, because after all the world around you is going ahead pretty much full steam.  So you might think that at the end of the holiday cycle rabbis rejoice, that we feel liberated, maybe along the lines of how an accountant might feel on April 16th.

But the truth is, most rabbis probably would tell you they feel some what ambivalent about the end of the fall holidays.  Yes, there is relief, no question about it.  The season does have its unique pressures and stresses, and we are glad to bid those goodbye.  And I will tell you something else, a secret and please don’t share it with anyone outside of this room.  Rabbis – even rabbis! – get ‘shuled out.’  You know the old story  – a young man’s mother wakes him up on Shabbat morning – “Joey!  You’ve got to get up and get ready – shul starts in 1 hour.”  “I don’t want to go to shul” the young man replies with his head under a pillow.  “I’m tired!  I want to sleep in.”  “But you have to go,” his mother insists, “they might need you to make a minyan!”  “I’m not going,” says the young man.  “But there is a bar mitzvah,” says his mother.  “I don’t care,” says the young man.  “I am not going to shul today!”  “But Joey,” his mother says, “You have to go!  You are the rabbi!”  So there is truly a sense of relief when the holidays finally come to an end.

But there is also a sense of regret.  After all, what rabbi doesn’t like seeing a full sanctuary?  What rabbi doesn’t feel proud when the holiday services are complimented, when people say kind words about sermons the rabbi has worked on?  What rabbi doesn’t feel good when people take time out of their busy schedules to make Jewish life a priority?  So there is, for many rabbis, a bit of what is sometimes called today ‘the post wedding blues’ when the holidays end.  All of the planning, all of the effort and energy, culminates in a wonderful and intense experience, and suddenly the holidays are over, and it is very quiet.  No special services to plan.  No programs to run, no pearls of wisdom to bestow upon packed sanctuaries.

There is a parable that was told by the Dubner Maggid, one of the great Hasidic story tellers.  It describes a shopkeeper who was worried because a man he knew kept walking by the shop, but never came in.  Instead, he did all his shopping at other stores.  The shop keeper had an idea – he would invite the man in, not to purchase anything, but just to catch up – after all, they knew each other, they were old friends.  And maybe when the man was in the shop he would see something he liked.

So the man started stopping by the store, chatting with the owner a few times a week, exchanging pleasantries, catching up on family.  But he still didn’t buy anything.  Finally the shopkeeper admitted to himself that the man just wasn’t going to buy.  He wasn’t interested.

That is like God and the Jews on the HHDs, said the Dubner Maggid.  God invites us to the house of worship for RH and YK, for Sukkot and Simhat Torah, hoping that while we are in shul we’ll pick up a little Teshuvah over here, a sense of Ma’asim Tovim over there, that while we are here we’ll buy, we’ll become invested and connected, regular attenders, more faithful and practicing Jews.   But it doesn’t always work out that way, and too many leave shul empty handed.

And I think that is the way a lot of rabbis feel at this time of year.  By and large we rabbis tend to be optimists – and we hope that the experience people have with the holidays will be positive enough to hook them for the year, and maybe even longer than that. I always think of the haftara that is chanted on Shemini Atzeret, which we celebrated Thursday morning.  It describes the end of the fall holiday cycle in ancient times, when the people would make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.  Just as the holidays are ending and the people are preparing to head home, King Solomon gathers them all in the great Temple courtyard, and he rises before them to give them a last blessing before they depart – this is how that blessing concludes:  “May you be wholehearted with the Lord our God, to walk in God’s ways and keep God’s commandments, even as this day.”

It is the last phrase that catches my attention – כיום הזה – even as this day.  In other words, Solomon is telling them ‘as you’ve felt during these holidays  – close to God, connected to our faith and the history of our people, so may you feel the rest of the year, even when you leave this sacred place, even when you are back at home, engaged with the tasks of day to day life.’

And that, friends, is the true task of the rabbi.  In all honesty, the holiday season is the time of year when keeping people interested in and engaged in Jewish life is the easiest.  People are open to it, they are ready for it, they even block out their calendars to make sure they get to shul to participate in services.  You don’t have to do that much to make them feel good about being Jewish, to make them feel connected and concerned about Jewish life.  The holidays take care of that for you.

The true challenge begins when the holidays end.  How do you get people to take that feeling with them the rest of the year, the other 11 months in the calendar?  You hope they’ve left the holiday season with a renewed sense of Jewish commitment, with a stronger connection to the synagogue, with a greater determination to make Judaism a meaningful part of their lives.  How do you get people to follow through with that?  To keep coming to services?  To add Jewish practices to their home life?  To commit to studying Torah on a regular basis, as Rabbi Saroken suggested last night? That is the hard part, and yet that is precisely the rabbi’s job.

But if there is one thing I’ve learned in my 17 years in the rabbinate, it is that the rabbi can’t do that job alone.  He – or she – needs committed lay leaders, partners in shaping the course of the synagogue’s future.  Devoted congregants, who form a core group of committed Jews, breathing life into our tradition on a daily basis.  Bat and bar mitzvah families, determined to give their children a proper Jewish education.  Talented leaders and teachers in the Hebrew school.  Committed professional staff.  The synagogue, after all, is bigger than the rabbi.  It combines all of these people, their interests and needs, the areas of expertise, their particular love of Judaism and Jewish life.  Thursday night we danced with the Torahs, and the truth is now in my 50th year I can’t carry those Torahs the way I used to.  At one point I got tired, and another congregant was there.  “Do you need help, rabbi?” he asked.  I handed him that Torah, and he took it and danced away with it the center of a circle of dancing Jews.  That is it, I thought.  The holiday season is coming to a close, but together we will carry the Torah into this new year.

May we do so for many years to come –

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