There are moments on the pulpit that can be incredibly frustrating. There is truly no correct answer when a congregant says “why weren’t you there?” This is not just about moments of loss or illness, but rather social events or other daily programs. The best answer is an apology, even though while the rabbi might be sorry, s/he knows deep down inside that s/he cannot be in two, or even three, places at once. When there are two programs occurring simultaneously, a decision needs to be made. It is equally important when an event overlaps with personal family time.
One of my greatest rabbinic teachers taught me never to make an excuse for not being somewhere. Just say “I cannot be there.” Internally the struggle is tough because a rabbi wants people to understand the dilemma and squash expectations of being everywhere at once. Also, many rabbis do actually want to be everywhere. There are also moments when congregants want more time from their rabbi; when an hour long meeting is not enough. Is there a way to satisfy the needs of so many different perspectives of what a rabbi’s day looks like?
These requests pile up, and it explains why so many of our colleagues choose to go the education/agency route. When those rabbis are on the job, they are on and when they are off the job they are just ordinary Jews. My friends considering Emergency Medicine enjoy that lifestyle for the same reason. There is no On Call pressure; rather set hours to be the doctor.
But then, in the middle of those requests, something always happens. Recently, I was having one of these days. My pile of requests got so high I asked my wife “should I really be in the pulpit?” A few hours later a young girl, the first I Bat Mitzvaed at the synagogue, approached me with her mother and handed me a package and note. I opened the gift and it was a framed picture of her and me from the day before her Bat Mitzvah. The note read “Dear Rabbi Fine, Thank you for being the best Rabbi in the whole world!” Those notes are humbling and the fact is that rabbis get into the rabbi business for moments like that, where positive Judaism happens and makes an impact. No matter how many requests pile up, the picture frame moments always win out and remain in the rabbi’s office to remind him of that.