Gellman: A Quarter Century With My Congregants

This week my congregants will celebrate 25 years of my being their rabbi. The ancient rabbis taught that the one who is truly honored is the one who honors others; in that spirit, I wanted to share my joy at this milestone in my rabbinate by offering some words of praise and honor to all clergypersons who have served their flocks for many years.

The most important thing I have learned by being professionally religious for more than three decades (I’ve been a rabbi for 34 years) is that what you believe now or do now does not matter nearly as much as what you believe and do in the long run. The life of faith, like life itself, is a marathon—not a sprint. The reason for this is obvious. Some days the breath of God is on our back and some days the breath of God is in our face. To sum up our faith on the days we move without effort is foolishly optimistic. To sum up our faith on the days we cannot move at all is foolishly despairing. Only in the long run can we see what we have wrought. And what is true for us is also true for those who come to us and call upon us. They come on their breezy days, both the good ones and the bad ones. We tell them—most often not with words but with smiles, hugs and silence—that it is what they believe and what they do in the long run that matters most.

I praise you, my colleagues, and I ask God’s blessing upon you for doing this work not just for a while, but for all of your lives. I praise and bless you for being present to other families when your family needs you. I praise those of you who have sacrificed family for a celibate life of even deeper sacrifice and service. The life of full-time clergypersons is rarely praised publicly, but is praised on the lips of real people who have been profoundly changed and continuously sustained by a lifetime of faithful ministry. I am proud to work among you, and I praise you with my deepest heart for all the good things you do in the long run that will never be known by anyone else except God. Please believe what I am certain you do believe: that this is enough.

I also pray that you might find ways to endure the tyranny of sacred expectations that causes people to criticize us and demean us from time to time because we are not exactly as good as Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, Vishnu or Buddha. I don’t know when the expectations arose that clergy should be perfect people.  The Apostles were a mixed bag, and there is nobody in the Hebrew Bible I would wish my child to be like. No one expects perfect virtue from other workers in our world, but somehow faith workers are held to a higher standard. I can live—and I know you, my brothers and sisters in faith can live—with higher standards. After all, we are allowed to study the words of God and preach the words of God and do the words of God. So it is fair for our congregants to expect we be more transparent, more receptive and more reflective of those words than others who are not yoked to God but yoked to the world. However, we are not perfect, and yet we are expected by some to evince a faith and a life so perfect and pristine, so absent of human needs and foibles, that it cannot be attained by anyone except God.

I think this comes from a deep resistance to the hardest thing we teach. We teach people that they should be better and that they can be better, and many of them hate us for telling them that. They want to be what they are, and given the animal passions that grip us all, this is the doorway to sin. If we are not perfect, the recalcitrant ones say, then I don’t need to even try to be better than I am. If we are hypocrites, then religion is hypocritical. If we betray our vows, then they can betray theirs. And so I pray that all of us faith workers, and all of those we work for and with, can remember one simple truth: we are the messengers, not the message. May we be good and honest messengers but may we—or they—never forget the difference.

So, my colleagues who have been working for God for many years, be not afraid and be of good courage because you are doing noble work and noble work is hard to find. Let me also wish those faith workers who are just starting out many joyous days with the breath of God at your back as you name babies and marry brides and grooms and say good things about people whom God has just kissed. I pray that, some day, you will look back on a generation of students who have made their way in the world with a faith they might not have were it not for something you did or something you said in the long run.

God bless us one and all.