How to Choose a Rabbi
February 27, 2021
Rumor has it you are looking for a new rabbi.
After I announced my intention to retire, the leadership of our synagogue put together an exceptional committee to begin the process of finding a new rabbi for Temple Beth Sholom.
Like so many things, the coronavirus made this unusually challenging so I agreed to delay my retirement by a year but I also encouraged our leadership to start looking. Who knows maybe your bashert – maybe the one you are intended to continue this journey with is available this year.
I use the word bashert – very deliberately. For I believe that in many ways choosing a rabbi is a lot like choosing a life’s mate — and the dynamics of a good rabbinic search is much like a good search for a mate – in both cases you are looking for a good shidduch – a good match.
Anyone who watches the TV show the Bachelor or the Bachelorette has already learned all the wrong ways to choose a shidduch. I know it is a very popular show but I am afraid that entertainment value aside, I am not a fan. The Bachelor or The Bachelorette shows both emphasize all the superficial things about mate choosing: how they dress, how they look, how they make love. Candidates are quizzed on very deep subjects, like their pet peeves and whether they were morning or night people. Of course the bachelor inevitably chooses one of the prettiest girls from the bunch and the bachelorette always goes for a hunk. Not much surprise there. Fans may root for the “nice guy” but he usually doesn’t stand a chance.
While the Bachelor and Bachelorette might make for entertaining TV, it does not make for a good model of how to choose a mate – or a rabbi. Some might find it objectionable as there is no way to make such a consequential choice in such a brief time with so few opportunities for truly getting to know each other. My objection is very different. My objection is not to the brevity of the search but the underlying assumption that there is such a thing as a perfect match no matter how much time you are given to search for him or her!
Here is this bachelor sitting in judgement of these beautiful women based on whether they give the right answers to his questions. And if they give the wrong answers – sorry sweetheart – next! The bachelor is silly because it assumes you can find your perfect certain someone in a few brief encounters but that is only the other extreme of the silliness of the young man who sits in my office and tells me that after 10 years of searching he still can’t find his perfect certain someone. One hour or 10 years – the problem is not the amount of time – it is the fundamental assumption that there is such a thing as “a perfect someone.”
The “right match” and the “perfect match” are two very different things that will lead you to two very different kinds of searches. To find the “perfect match,” the one who gives you all the right answers to your questions may well be the wrong person to marry. But, the one who may not answer all your questions “right” may still be right for you.
Let me try and explain. The assumption that marriage is all about finding someone “just like you” – is not only incredibly narcissistic but it is also just plain wrong! It comes as no surprise that the Me Generation would produce a concept of marriage that seeks to find one’s life mate in someone who resembles him or herself as closely as possible. If I am as good as it gets – then having someone just like me to share life with will only make it all that much better. “Do you like to ski? Great, so do I, we can ski together!”
I think Judaism has always approached shidduchim in general and marriage specifically from a very different perspective. Instead of assuming I am perfect and looking for someone perfect, just like me – Judaism starts with the assumption that I am far from perfect and my life’s mate may bring to the equation many qualities that I don’t have, making us better together. “You like to ski? Gee, I’ve never tried that, maybe you can teach me and we can learn to ski together!” Marriage is the cure for what ails us. A good shidduch is the antidote to our imperfection. Learning that we can’t make it on our own is one of life’s most important lessons. Choosing a new rabbi is not about finding someone who answers your questions “the right way,” someone who always agrees with you or is just like you. It is finding someone who might have something important to teach you, someone you can learn from and who is willing to learn from you and together you will be better.
Would you be surprised if I told you that our Torah reading for this Shabbat teaches this very same lesson? I didn’t think so. The Torah reading for this Shabbat, Tezaveh, begins with God’s commandment to Moses to build a menorah, an eternal light. That seems clear and simple. But the midrash says that Moses did not know how to carry out this commandment, he could not figure out just exactly what kind of an eternal light to build, what shape it should be, what size it should be. He tried once, he tried twice, he tried a third time and he kept getting it wrong. Finally, God said: “never mind, ask Bezalel, and let him build the menorah, because he is a gifted artisan and he will know how to do it, better than you do.” I find that a fascinating midrash. Moses? the man who saw God face to face? Moses, the man who brought the Torah down to earth? Moses, the man who was closer to God than anyone else in all of our history? Moses couldn’t figure out how to make a menorah and Bezalel could!!
The man who could remember the whole Torah by heart, couldn’t figure out how to make a menorah? What sense does that make? Why, in God’s name, does the midrash picture Moses, as being dependent on Bezalel on having to go to him, and ask him to make the menorah?
Perhaps it was to teach us the simple lesson that none of us, not even Moshe Rabeynu, not even the Great Moses, the ultimate teacher, knows it all and can do it all. No one, not even Moses, is an expert in everything, and therefore, just as Bezalel needed Moses to teach him the Torah, so Moses needed Bezalel to teach him how to make the menorah.
Let me teach you one of my favorite brachot. There is a bracha in the Talmud that we don’t say often enough. When you meet a wise person, a learned rabbi, when you meet a scientist, or a mathematician, or a philosopher, or anyone of great learning, you are supposed to say: Baruch Atta Hashem, Elokeynu, melech ha olam, SHE-CHOLAYK meychochmoto livasar v’dam – Blessed art Thou, O Lord Our God, Ruler of the universe, who has granted A CHELEK, A PORTION, of God’s wisdom to human beings.
The key word here is chelek. God gives a portion of God’s wisdom to human beings and for this God is to be thanked. But God does not give all of God’s wisdom to any one human being and therefore, human beings have to trade: you teach me your chelek, and I will teach you my chelek. I will teach you what I know in my area of expertise, and you teach me what you know in your area of expertise. There are a lot of things I know as a rabbi, and there are a lot of things you know as my cardiologist, or my barber, or my plumber – I will teach you and you teach me and together, if we share our ch’lakim– our wisdom portions – we will both end up knowing more. That is the point of that bracha and that is the point of that Midrash, that none of us, not even Moses, knows it all and that therefore we need to learn from each other, and we need to teach each other. The goal is to find someone I can learn from – share with – not someone just like me.
And if Torat Moshe and today’s torah reading and the Talmud are not proof enough of my point – take it from the torah of Charlie Brown.
Growing up I loved the comic strip Charlie Brown created by Charles Schultz.
And if Mr. Schultz taught us anything it was about the imperfection of people and even more importantly, he taught us that people could be lovable not in spite of their imperfections but because of their imperfections. Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, the little red haired girl – were lovable because of their foibles and because of their imperfections.
Recently there have been a number of TV shows that reinforce this notion that imperfection is beautiful. Shows like Schitt’s Creek and Ted Lasso embrace the idea that their heroes are very imperfect people. We love Ted Lasso – not despite his imperfections – but because of them and what the other characters on the show come to realize is how much they have to learn from him because of these imperfections.
But back to Charlie Brown. Charles Schultz had one cartoon that I remember very vividly in which Lucy is talking to Charlie Brown and she says: “I have decided what I want to be when I grow up.” And Charlie says: “really? what is it?” And Lucy says: “when I get big, I have decided that I want to be a baseball umpire.” And Charley says to her: “what in the world makes you think that you would be a good baseball umpire?” And Lucy answers: “because I’m always right or at least I’m never wrong.”
We all know people like Lucy? As Will Rogers once said: isn’t it too bad that all the people who know all the answers to all of the country’s problems are all either barbers, next door neighbors or bartenders, and not presidents. There are a lot of people who go through life feeling as Lucy does: I should be an umpire because I am never wrong.
I hope there is no one like Lucy on your search committee and I hope you will not make a similar mistake in looking for friends, a life’s mate – or a rabbi. Rather than look for someone who is perfect, just like you. I hope you are looking for someone who is imperfect, just like you. Someone who, like Ted Lasso, is imperfect but has things to teach you and that you will learn together, be better together. Someone who has a chelek, a portion of God’s wisdom and who is willing and capable of sharing that chelek with you. Someone who is interested in your chelek – in the wisdom that God gave you and that by learning from each other and with each other you will be better and this community will be stronger.