The Joys and Challenges of Being a Rabbi


I want to thank Congregation Beth Shalom President, Michael Rabin and our vice-President Elizabeth Sigale, for organizing this night of Clergy Appreciation. Rabbis, in “Jewish”, are called “Rabbonim” and Cantors are called “Chazonim”. The word for “Jewish Clergy” in Hebrew is “Klei Kodesh”. This phrase means, “Holy Vessels”. Although Rabbis and Cantors have different roles and responsibilities in a congregation, this rather daunting term – Klei Kodesh – describes the aspirations of both Rabbis and Cantors to transmit the history, wisdom, ethics, beliefs and practices of the Jewish people to those who seek it.  Being a Klei Kodesh, a “Holy Vessel” brings with it its own joys and challenges. I would like to share some of those with you tonight from my vantage point as a Rabbi.

I once read that rabbis’ longevity with their congregations is about the same as that of head coaches in professional football with their teams. That is if you are Bill Belichick and have Tom Brady as your quarterback, or you are Mike Tomlin and have Ben Rothlisberger as your quarterback, you can coach for twenty plus years for the same team. When you have a great quarterback, you win a lot of games, and you are known as a great coach. However, the average length of work for an NFL coach on a team is 4.3 seasons. That is better than a major league baseball manager, whose average length of tenure is 3.7 seasons! I don’t know if there are any statistics for the length of the average rabbi’s tenure, but one of our challenges is building a long-term relationship with a congregation. For many of us, our lives are as shaky as, as  …….. Well, as a A Fiddler on the Roof! 

Another challenge of being a rabbi is expressed in our siddur, our prayer book. At the conclusion of the set of prayers known as the Amidah, there is a prayer that begins, “Keep my tongue from speaking evil”. It was the custom of ancient Rabbis to recite a personal prayer at the conclusion of their recitation of the Amidah, after “Sim Shalom”. This is why the prayer is in the singular, “keep my tongue from speaking evil”. The Talmud gives examples of the personal prayers that the earliest Rabbis would recite after the Amidah. “Upon completing the Amidah Rabbi Yochanan would say…..Rabbi Zera would say …..Rabbi Hiyya would say……Rav would say…. And so forth.  The prayer that the rabbis, who organized the siddur, chose to place at the conclusion of the Amidah was written by Mar son of Ravina, a sage who lived in the 4th century CE. I think it hints at some of the challenges that they found being a rabbi in their own time that are still relevant today. 

Let me quote from the first part of this prayer. 

My God, keep my tongue from speaking evil and my lips from lies. Help me ignore those who slander me. May I be humble before all. Open my heart to your Torah…..Frustrate the designs of those who plot against me, make nothing of their schemes…….

Now let’s take that apart:

One of the challenges of being a rabbi is to remain humble. A rabbi is a spiritual leader and thus a representative of God. We are, after all, “vessels of holiness”! I remember one preschooler asking me if I WAS God! Rabbis need to guard against feelings of entitlement, haughtiness and arrogance. But the other extreme is equally problematic and that is  –  Excessive humility, which is not humility at all, but rather, an abdication of responsibility. Moses, the first rabbi, is described in the Torah as the most humble person who ever lived. Yet, he was anything but humble when he faced the rebellion of Korah. Striking the right balance between assertiveness and humbleness is a challenge every rabbi faces. 

The prayer also describes a second challenge which is   encountered by figures in positions of leadership in any institution. Politics is inherent in any group, in any community and in many spheres of life. Sometimes factions arise in synagogue life. Sometimes, like Moses, rabbis even have to face rebellions! The challenge then is for the rabbi to control their own response, especially their speech. The rabbi prays to God for help so that he or she can restrain themselves from striking back in kind. 


Despite the challenges – and there are many more – being a rabbi is a privilege and a blessing. In what other walk of life can one be so involved in the life of a community and the families of that community. Rabbis are invited to participate in the most important times in the lives of individuals and families. When a baby is born, we join in the bris or the naming ceremony; when someone is sick in the hospital, we visit them and provide comfort; we celebrate with a family when there is a bar or bat mitzvah or bnai mitzvah. We grieve along with congregants when there is a loss. We teach young children and teens in our Hebrew schools; we teach adults as well. We rejoice with couples at their wedding ceremonies; we provide counsel for families who are experiencing difficulties. A rabbi is involved outside of their synagogue community as well. Rabbis teach at the college level, represent our faith in interfaith forums, our voice is important in social justice issues. A rabbi gets to set aside time each week to study, to read and to think in order to write sermons and to teach. As a rabbi I have been privileged to lead our congregation to Israel and Central Europe on educational trips. I have also traveled extensively to Europe and to Israel and even Africa to learn firsthand about the history, challenges and successes of Jewish communities in far off places. A rabbi wears so many different hats – it never gets boring! 

On this special night when Congregation Beth Shalom recognizes the clergy that has served you so well throughout the years, I need to say that it has been an honor and a privilege to serve as your Rabbi for these 14 plus years. Thank you and   

Shabbat Shalom