Originally published on the Huffington Post 06/27/2014
These days it seems like I am always tired. Not the 5-am-wakeup-so-I-can-get-to-the-gym kind of tired. And not even the 11-pm-bedtime-after-a-long-night-of-meetings tired. And while those kids certainly tire me out, I don’t think I can blame them for this one either.
These days I’m tired because I’m empathizing more with each member of my community. People keep getting sick — really sick. Diagnoses of cancers left, right, and center. As rabbis — or priests or pastors or imams — our congregants’ pain is our pain. Your fears are our fears, because we care for you and about you. Personally, I know that I am their rabbi and they are the members of my holy congregation. But more to the point, I feel that these people are my extended family.
There have also been deaths — too many deaths, too soon, too young, all tragic. It’s so painful. And while of course there is great joy in the rabbinate — weddings to celebrate, babies being born, children who sing and play joyfully in our synagogue — these days the joy does not always manage to outweigh the sadness.
I imagine this is quite normal. Step into the role of clergy, and you will see that from the moment we hear of a death, our lives are immediately changed. Meetings rescheduled, childcare altered, date night cancelled. And that’s just the beginning. Meet with the family, consult with the funeral home, write a eulogy, plan a funeral and burial, supervise shiva, counsel and support the mourners for weeks and months to come. As their rabbi, I walk on their path, crying with them, holding them, laughing and remembering when they want to laugh and remember.
Pain and loss also take a toll on doctors, nurses, and all those who witness suffering and must go home at the end of the day. When members of my community have a loss, they are generally suffering the one loss while I share a piece of all of their losses. I am so lucky to be in a large congregation with an incredible professional staff. Unlike many clergy who are alone in their congregations, this burden is not mine alone. But the sorrow I take home at the end of the day — indirectly impacting my husband and children — is mine alone. The pain of my congregants’ losses — the pain I carry with me — stays long after the shiva candle has been extinguished.
There has been so much pain for rabbis in the past few months, and I have to wonder if this pressure, fatigue, and pain is getting to everyone. Perhaps we need to learn better self-care. In this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (Numbers 19:1-22:1), we read about a strange ritual performed after a person has come in contact with a corpse. The ritual of the red heifer removes that person’s impurity (or, “not-yet-readiness”) for Temple worship and communal living. The strangest part of the ritual is that the priest who helps purify the impure person becomes impure himself. The priest bathes, washes his clothes, and remains impure until evening. Only then may he return to his duties, his community, and his family. This is a Torah-mandated break for the priest and anyone else who has come in contact with the dead and with anyone who has come in contact with any of those people. The Torah shows us that pain and loss impact the lives of survivors beyond the immediate family, and that we need to take care of all those involved.
Reading this ritual, I wonder if this was the original rabbinic self-care, and what we might learn from this today. When you see your rabbi in a funeral suit, ask him how he’s feeling. If you know your rabbi has been dealing with a lot of sorrows lately, share your joys with her more. Give your rabbi some time and space after a funeral — it could be an hour away from the office (and rabbis, we owe it to ourselves to actually take a break!) or just a casual conversation about the weather. Don’t insist that he or she return to the pressures of the office — the emails, the phone calls, the details of planning a program — right after participating in the holy and sad task of a funeral. Allow him or her to pause, to take some time to grieve and to once again become “ready” for ritual work and communal life. Imagine how much more “ready” we all might be if we take some time away to heal and rejuvenate.
Clergy are called to this profession because we care. Our empathy runs deep as we engage in holy relationships and journey together on life’s path. When that empathy is returned, we can give you so much more.