The Rabbi’s Priest’s Tale

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, May 12, 2023 / 21 Iyar 5783

Summary: A wonderful rabbi and mentor reflects on his life by sharing his deeply human flaws.

Reading Time: Five minutes

Another one of my teachers, Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, is facing a serious health crisis. Rabbi Diamond taught Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Once upon a time, I was the mashgiach or kashrut supervisor at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. Rabbi Diamond was the scholar in residence one summer and when questions arose that exceeded my knowledge, I turned to him for his expertise. Getting to learn from him that summer was a deep privilege. His humility and wisdom ran as deep as his book learning, which was prodigious.

Rabbi Diamond’s cancer has returned. That has put him in an introspective mood, and he has been penning one beautiful and touching account of his experiences after another. With his permission, I’d like to share one of those pieces; even though he ostensibly is communicating to other clergy, he has embedded a lesson which is a worthwhile reminder for all of us. Here it is:

Let’s call this one the Rabbi’s Priest’s Tale, with apologies to Chaucer.

I was finally in a place where I could get the help I needed – and yet something was missing. Anti-depressants and mood stabilizers, group therapy, addiction counseling, in-house AA meetings – my chemical, psychological and emotional issues were being addressed; what of my spiritual ones? What, in particular, to make of the fact that I was a fraud, supposedly a rabbi and a teacher but in fact a seriously impaired alcoholic whose own life seemed beyond repair?

I knew that I needed to speak to someone who could help me in this moment of spiritual crisis. I was reluctant to go to the Jewish chaplain because I was afraid they might know me. Even if they hadn’t, they might have known someone who knew me. More than anything else, I was too deeply ashamed of who I saw myself to be to speak to a fellow rabbi.

In desperation, I called the Catholic chaplain – I am sorry to say that I no longer remember his name, but I am forever grateful to him. “I need to have a spiritual discussion with someone who speaks the language,” I told him. “Sure,” he said. “Come see me and we’ll talk.”

I went to his office and laid it all out for him. There is nothing more difficult, I think, than looking at your life whole and seeing it as a series of missteps and wasted opportunities, not to mention having to own up to the hurt you have caused friends, family, and colleagues. My father confessor, as it were, listened quietly, saying nothing until I came to the end of my tale of woe.

“Here’s the story,” he said. “You will now be a better rabbi than you ever were before. You’ve been preaching from the mount, seeing yourself as superior to what you imagine to be the unwashed masses below. But you’re not superior – far from it. And you are willing to see that now. Actually, you’ve been forced to see it. You’re a broken man, and that is your salvation. You can now minister from a place of honesty and humility. You can admit to those you seek to help that you are no better than they are, and that you don’t understand God’s plan any better than they do. And that will allow you to truly hear them in their time of need and help them find the healing they seek.” Of course, he was right. That moment in his office is when I began the journey toward becoming the rabbi I was meant to be. “Do you want to pray?” The thought that came to my mind was – to whom? But it was a foolish reaction born of reflexive distrust. “Let’s do it.”

He placed his hands on my head and offered on my behalf his version of a Mi She-Beirakh. “Oh Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…” The list continued. At present I only remember that the last name was Isaiah, which seemed about right to me. “Please bless this man with Your compassion and wisdom, helping him to be Your faithful servant. Love him and watch over him.” I can still feel his hands resting on my head and hear the quiet and healing words that he spoke.

The person who left that office was not the person who entered it. I had been charged with a mission – to turn a curse into a blessing. That is still my mission today.

Years later, someone said to me, after hearing my story, “So I guess at some point you got in touch with him and thanked him for helping turn your life around.” The answer was – no. The next day, I called Carrier (Clinic), but it was too late. My benefactor had moved on, and no forwarding address was available.

After excoriating myself for my negligence and thoughtlessness, I found some comfort in the following thought: If you become a rabbi, or a priest, or an imam, or a shaman, and part of how you spend your time is waiting around hoping and expecting to get back the thanks you deserve – or you think you deserve – you’re a fool. It’s all about serving God and serving people. If you get thanked, it feels good, but either way, go home knowing that you’ve done your job. I am sure that when I left that priest’s office, his first thought was not “Is this guy going to thank me some day?” but rather “Okay, who’s next?” When I help someone and I feel that the appropriate expression of gratitude is not forthcoming, I remind myself that I’m not a bellhop waiting for a tip. As a friend of mine says: chop wood and carry water – and be thankful for the opportunity to help others.

There are so many profound insights in the above narrative; it is my hope that each of us will find the ones we need. Perhaps these questions can spur your Shabbat Table Talk this week.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Don’t let shame prevent you from getting the help you need.
  2. Being broken doesn’t make us frauds, just human. Simultaneously, we should seek to heal ourselves.
  3. If shame is a barrier to finding the support we need, look further afield, but get support. You deserve it.
  4. Our worth does not flow out of being special or unique, or even from our achievements.
  5. Working for appreciation is like trying to fill a leaking bucket with water. Once we appreciate ourselves, we need less approval from the outside world.

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