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Understanding Our Rabbi

After the momentous events of the Exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea, climaxing with the drowning of the nine million Egyptians who pursued the Bnei Yisroel, Yisro, Moshe Rabbeinu’s father in-law, came to the camp of the Bnei Yisroel deep in the desert to greet him and to bring back to Moshe Rabbeinu his wife, Tziporah, and his two children, Gershom and Eliezer. The Torah tells us that Yisro witnessed a typical day of Moshe Rabbeinu’s. As the Torah records, he saw, “Vayeishev Moshe lisphot es haam, vayaamod haam al Moshe min ha boker ad haarev,” that Moshe sat in judgment over the Bnei Yisroel and they stood in waiting for his attention from the morning until the evening. The posuk continues that Yisro was dismayed and troubled at this sight. “Vayomer chosein Moshe eilav, ‘Lo tov hadavar asher atah oseh. Navol tivol, gam atah, gam haam hazeh asher imoch ki chaveid mim’cha hadavar. Lo suchal aso’hu l’vadecha’ – And Moshe Rabbeinu’s father in-law told him, ‘It is not good what you are doing. You will wear yourself out, together with the people that are awaiting your service. This matter is too hard for you. You cannot handle it all by yourself.’ ” The Torah continues that, with the approval of Hashem, Moshe Rabbeinu instituted a system of assistants numbering 78,600 people. Imagine! Moshe Rabbeinu attempted to do a job that needed the efforts of an additional 78,600 very capable helpers.

While this is a fascinating historical story, we must understand that the Torah is written to teach us lessons for all time. Therefore, it would behoove us to mine from this Biblical story a very contemporary message for our time. In many Shuls across the globe, we expect an inhuman amount from the Shul Rabbi. We expect them to have well-prepared sermons with both scholarly Biblical and Talmudic references and at the same time they should be up on all current events and community challenges. We want them to have a proper variety in their discourses of lomdus, agadata, and halachah, with the proper amount of humor and stories dashed in. We want them to service the men, the women, the teens. They should give a Daf Yomi shiur and also cater to the people who are not up to the Daf Yomi. Their pastoral care should include hospital visits not only to the members but to members’ parents. Not only should they take care of the funeral arrangements and the eulogies, but they should make sure about the proper care in the house of mourning (even when there are concurrent houses of mourning during the same week). We want them to solve our shalom bais problems and help us get our children into schools when they are kicked out because of misbehavior.

We want them to help them with unemployment, help with writing a will and being well-versed in both the halachic law and the law of the land. We want them to be available for an unveiling and would they please write a nice poetic formula for the tombstone. We want them to take over the bulk of fundraising and share dinner preparations besides being up on all the latest shul politics. At the same time, we want them to be up-to-snuff on all community related affairs such as the eiruv and the mikvah, all the institutions of kashrus in the town, and we want them to be very involved in the Vaad HaRabonim of our city. We expect them to be punctual and not miss the shiurim for consistency is the key. Still, at the same time we want them at every one of our weddings, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, brisim, pidyon habens, vorts, and l’chaims. And… it would be nice, if the Rabbi feels close enough, that he attends those of our grandchildren as well. When the sane person hears all of this, he hears an echo of Yisro’s words, “Navol tivol – You will grow weary.”

The Panei’ach Raza offers three interpretations of the words “Navol tivol.” First, he explains on the simple level it means “nafal tipol,” the leader will fall apart! Burnout is the obvious result of trying to do too many things at one time. His second interpretation is that it means “irbuvia,” confusion.’ The source for this is what Hashem says by the generation of dispersal, the dor haflaga, “V’navlah shom sifasom – I will confuse their language.” For, if the Rabbi tries to do too many things at the same time, everything gets mixed-up and everything starts to suffer. Finally, in his third explanation, the Panei’ach Raza says that it means the Rabbi will become old before his time. As Sarah Imeinu said, “Acharei v’losi hoisa li ednah – After I became old and withered, shall I become rejuvenated?” And, indeed, we find many middle-aged Rabbis getting gray and wrinkled from the overwhelmingly impossible demands put upon their time.

It is noteworthy that only Yisro noticed this problem. Furthermore, Yisro points out that he wasn’t just concerned for his son in-law’s welfare. But also “gam ha’am hazeh – for the nation as a whole,” meaning, if three million people have to wait for the services and litigation of one person, it will lead to many frustrated people indeed for, rather than having to wait in long lines before their queries are dealt with, quite a few people will abstain from seeking assistance at all.

This explains the puzzling phenomenon of many a Rabbi who tries to be a superman yet, when general membership meets to assess his rabbinical report card, they decide that he isn’t doing enough. While on the surface this is preposterous, the truth is, because there is so much to do, some things just won’t get done and, being human, he might miss on certain vital services.

I remember about twenty-five years ago, I was saying a Daf Yomi on a page of Gemora that had quotations from over twenty verses from all over the Writings of the Prophets. Since the Gemora has no punctuation (and I had no time during the day to memorize the punctuation for all of these rare verses), I read some of the verses with the wrong punctuation. With self-righteous indignation, one of the attendees came over to me afterwards saying that he was embarrassed that his Rabbi didn’t even know how to properly pronounce the posukim. I told him that I’d try to do better. The next time I didn’t have ample time to memorize verses, I came in with a copy of the Gemora that has the punctuation inside it. This prompted an immediate response from yet another member who came over to me afterwards stating that he was ashamed that his Rabbi should have to give a lecture from a student’s edition of the Talmud! Such are some of the petty challenges of the Rabbinate.

While one of the aims of this article is to make for more savvy and understanding balei battim, it also is to look at what Yisro’s suggestion was to solve the problem. In essence, he said, the key is delegation. We live in a time of specialization. We must realize that not every Rabbi is skilled in the art of shalom bais, or helping the family with a severe addiction – whether it is drugs, alcohol, or gambling. And, although we feel that since we are paying dues we are entitled that our Rabbi should take care of all of our problems (and that we shouldn’t have to go out of network – so to speak), that is just being unrealistic and unfair. It is equally wrong to expect that our Rabbi should be able to maintain a full host of prepared lectures and yet be a social butterfly at all of our various simchas. Nor is it fair to expect that our Rabbi should be a lamdon like Reb Chaim, a master of parables like the Dubno Maggid, a storyteller like Rabbi Krohn, and a posek like Reb Moshe – all in the same person. Learn your Rabbi’s strengths and figure out how to delegate the rest. If it’s not your Rabbi’s forte to fundraise, allow him to minister to the flock with his G-d given talents and get others to collect his salary.

By realizing these realities, we will also ensure that we will have a healthy and productive leadership who will be a better role model for our families and ourselves and be more able to help us succeed in our collective avodas Hashem. May it be the will of Hashem that, in the zechus of our learning from the ways of the Torah, he bless with long life, good health, and everything wonderful.