A Rosh Hashanah Message from Our Chief Executive

Posted on: 
Thursday September 19, 2019
Dear Friends,
 
As I've taken on my new role with Our RA, this is the first time in 25 years that I am not conducting services or speaking from the pulpit on the ימים נוראים. One part I will particularly miss is the opportunity I have taken for the past many years to offer my own public "Rabbinic Vidui" in my congregation during Kol Nidrei. 
 
Each year as I prepared for Yom Kippur I would take a look at this list of ways I had failed as a rabbi in the past year, and I appreciated the opportunity to ask publicly (and often privately) for forgiveness. And somehow, as I tried to edit the list each year, it never seemed to get smaller.
 
I think about those moments when I've fallen short as we read the story of Hannah during haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah. She comes to Shiloh feeling bereft in her unfulfilled desire to bear a child. As the Tanakh states, "והיא מרת נפש ותתפלל על ה׳ ובכה תבכה." The text helps us feel the pathos of that moment, as Hannah sheds tears and silently pours out her heart during her prayer. It is not surprising that the Talmudic sages cite her as the example we should use in our own prayer experience, particularly in the Amidah (Berakhot 31a).
 
But it is what comes next that I find so unsettling: ויאמר אליה עלי:עד מתי תשתכרין! הסירי את יינך מעליך!. Instead of seeing sorrow and pain, the priest-in-residence, Eli, comes to the conclusion that Hannah is drunk, and rebukes her. Talk about a moment of pastoral failure!
 
Thankfully Hannah is strong enough to call him out on it, and Eli is able to recognize his mistake quickly. But reading this story through a pastoral lens, I wonder, "What has happened to Eli that he would treat Hannah that way?" Was it that the sight of a woman deep in prayer was so strange in his time? Or that prayer was unusual in general at a shrine that was primarily devoted to sacrificial worship?
 
Or did Eli suffer from what we might call today "compassion fatigue." Perhaps he was burned out. He was cynical and tired. After years of listening to the "tzuris" of so many visitors to Shiloh, he chose that moment to lash out instead of extending his hand and his heart.
 
What strikes me most about our current moment in history is the degree of anger that surrounds us. The political polarization in so many of our societies throughout the world is both a product of and a crucible for a certain anxiety and fury that seems overwhelming. And like water, it seeps into all the cracks of our conversations and interactions. As rabbis and pastors, as "holy vessels," we are implicitly asked to "hold" and manage so much of that negativity. But we also need to find healthy ways to then let it go. Or else we may find ourselves, like Eli, lashing out at the wrong moment, instead of reaching out with compassion and a loving embrace.
 
Our own self-care as rabbis is so important in this period. Along with our חשבון הנפש we might take a few moments to consider if we are eating well, exercising, meditating, studying Torah לשמה, seeing a counselor or therapist, or making enough time for family and friends - restorative and healthy experiences that nourish our own souls.
 
For me, another restorative experience is connecting with colleagues. When my rabbinate felt difficult, I reached out to rabbis who are my mentors and friends. I've looked for projects we can do together. I attended meetings of our RA region in the DC area. I've signed up for webinars, and attended conventions and other programs where I knew rabbis would be there. At every stage of my rabbinate, those connections were sustaining and renewing. I feel blessed in my new role to be able to interact with colleagues every day.
 
I hope that in the coming year, Our RA can find new ways to help colleagues forge such connections, so that we can approach our work with a לב שלם and a נפש טהור. And maybe this will be the year that my personal rabbinic vidui gets a little smaller.
 
Meanwhile, I ask your forgiveness for any wrongs I have committed towards you, and I wish you and your family a year of health and blessings, a שנה טובה ומתוקה.
 
Warm regards,
Jacob Blumenthal
Chief Executive, Rabbinical Assembly