Thoughts from a returning rabbi
It’s hard to believe that it’s almost over, but I will be returning to ‘normal’ in a few days, following a wonderful winter Sabbatical. I’ve spent much of the last few months in one of my favourite places in the world, the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, where I’ve had the opportunity to study, write and consult world-class scholars in my field of Jewish studies; I have even managed to make good progress on my dissertation.
I’m finishing this period feeling renewed and refreshed in many ways: I have in mind ideas for family activities, exciting new projects for my community, fresh perspectives on Israel and Zionism, and complete courses that I hope to teach over the next year.
But most importantly for me, I’ve had the chance to think, something that is a rare and precious commodity. Away from the concrete commitments, deadlines for sermons, pastoral emergencies, meetings and teaching schedules that characterise my professional week, I’ve actually been able to think for the first time in years, not just about my research, but about every aspect of life. I brought my mp3 player to Israel, convinced that I’d need to fill the frequent lacunae with music; I’ve used it once.
Without space and time, essential issues scarcely surface, let alone get addressed – I cannot overestimate the benefit of having had an extended period of contemplation and self-discovery, with, I hope, some tangible, long-term results. While I appreciate that few are accorded the privilege of a Sabbatical, small snippets of personal time and space for contemplation can be carved from even the busiest of weeks. I know this because my wife has been doing it for years, despite juggling numerous overwhelming personal and professional responsibilities, including managing the rabbi. I know that many people, including me, are nervous of doing this: we wonder what fears, insecurities or unresolved issues will surface and so avoid it all costs, instead filling our spare time with noise and other diversions. Yet we sell ourselves short by not conquering these fears.
And during this period, I’ve come to realise something very important. If we don’t appreciate the need to give ourselves space and time, we are unlikely to recognise and encourage its fulfilment in others. For community leaders, this is a stark message: our ability to understand, guide and nurture growth in others is impaired by our neglect of our own emotional and cerebral needs.
I am truly grateful to Golders Green Synagogue and the United Synagogue, for granting me this period to think, and most of all, to my family, who have been wonderfully supportive, despite my extended absences.