A few weeks ago someone asked me, “what’s most important when it comes to choosing a synagogue: feeling welcomed by the community, feeling that the religious school will be a good place for my kids, or feeling a connection with the rabbi?” It’s a great question. I thought about it for a bit. When you choose a synagogue, you are choosing a community, a place to religiously educate your children and a rabbi to be your spiritual teacher. Given this, my initial response to the question was that all three are equally important, as they are crucial aspects of synagogue life. But, I continued to mull over the question and now view things a bit differently.
One of the greatest aspects of Judaism is that we get to re-read our great books every single year. As we do so, we get a chance to catch the stuff we overlooked in previous years. Having just started to re-read Pirkei Avot, a compilation of ethical teachings of the ancient rabbis that is studied between Pesah and Shavuot, I came across a very simple teaching that answers the question posed to me a few weeks back. In the first chapter of Pirkei Avot, within the first few lines of the book, we are taught one of the most important things that we as Jews must do: “provide for yourself a rabbi.”
Judaism is all about learning. We are not to stop learning when we become a bar/bat mitzvah or when we complete the conversion process. We are supposed to study Judaism daily. No matter how old or wise we are, learning never ends. In order to learn, we need a teacher. In Judaism, our primary teacher is our rabbi. Every Jew should have a rabbi in their life. “Rabbi” means “teacher”. A rabbi is not a priest. In Judaism, a priest was the person who performed the rituals in the ancient Temple and had the ability to connect with God through these rituals. The “common folk” did not perform these rituals and, as such, could not connect with God. The Jewish priesthood came crashing down with the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 CE. It was at this point that the rabbis rose to power. They were a new type of Jewish leader. They were and still are “common folk”. For centuries rabbis have been teaching other “common folk” how to use Torah and traditions to connect to Judaism, God and spirituality. Sure, rabbis might know more Torah than other “common folk” but, as Pirkei Avot points out, this does not make rabbis better than others: “if you have learned a lot of Torah, do not think that you are morally better than anyone, for you were created to learn a lot of Torah.” Even a rabbi is required to get himself a rabbi – a teacher. I am blessed to have many wonderful rabbis who teach me on a regular basis.
While Pirkei Avot does talk about the importance of teaching our children, it does so only after we are told to get ourselves a rabbi. So many Jewish parents today are looking for a synagogue that will teach their children how to be Jewish. They overlook the fact that it is Jewish parents who teach their children how to be Jewish. Afternoon Hebrew schools and Hebrew day schools can supplement what goes on at home, but nothing can replace the Jewish moments that are shared with family. Mom lighting the Shabbat candles or leading the family seder, dad putting on his tallit or preparing to read Torah for an upcoming service – these are the moments that truly teach children. And this is why, first and foremost, the rabbis of Pirke Avot teach us to get ourselves a rabbi. A rabbi will insure that you learn what you need to know in order to create powerful Jewish moments for your children. A rabbi will give you the wisdom you need to be your children’s best Jewish teacher.
Immediately after stating: “provide for yourself a rabbi”, Pirke Avot states: “and acquire for yourself a friend”, suggesting that when we get a rabbi we not only get a teacher, we also get a friend. This is supported by the fact that Judaism insists that learning is not an activity that we can do on our own. While we are the “people of the book”, we are not a people that curl up with our books and read them by ourselves. We are instructed to learn with someone else, as a pair. This system of learning in pairs is known as “hevruta” which comes from the word “haver” which means “friend”. When we learn from a rabbi, we develop a strong bond or fellowship with her since a rabbi teaches her students not only in her study or classroom, but at some of the most sacred and intimate moments in a person’s life: at the birth of a child, a marriage, a child’s bat mitzvah, a wedding, a funeral, a divorce…In doing so, a rabbi becomes an active participant in the life of a Jew and a special relationship is created. Because of this, it is imperative that a Jew feels a connection with his rabbi.
Pirkei Avot teaches us that in addition to needing a rabbi, a Jew needs a community: “Do not separate yourself from the community.” We can’t be Jewish on our own. We need each other to learn, to celebrate, to pray, to mourn. By providing ourselves with a rabbi, we immediately connect ourselves to a community. This is because rabbis usually have many students and, thus, many powerful relationships. Because of her teaching, a rabbi creates a community of learners – a community of people committed to growing Jewishly. Within such a community, learners meet and connect with each other and new bonds and friendships are formed.
“What’s most important when it comes to choosing a synagogue: feeling welcomed by the community, feeling that the religious school will be a good place for my kids, or feeling a connection with the rabbi?” You must feel connected to a synagogue’s community and you must feel good about the religious school. But, most importantly, you must feel a connection with the rabbi. This connection will insure that you get the knowledge and spiritual guidance you need, the bonds of community you want, and the skills required to become the incredible Jewish teacher your children deserve (and remember that you don’t need to know everything because your synagogue’s religious school should provide a good supplemental Jewish education!).
I value the connections I share with my congregants. I pray daily that I live up to both the expectations set forth in Pirke Avot and the responsibilities of being a rabbi.