Friday, June 16, 1995

Who's The Boss? (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week , June 16, 1995

How many bosses do you have?

I've been told I have 700, or one boss per family unit of my congregation. That makes no sense, though, because how many family units are of one mind about anything? Let's multiply that number by three, then, and a conservative estimate would be that I've got at least 2,100 bosses.

But to be fair about it, some have moved to Florida, so of the 2,100 bosses there are only about 2,000 full-time bosses.

Then there are approximately 12,000 Jews in my town who, while they aren't my congregants, claim to know how everyone else's shul should be run.

Then there are the leaders of my movement and other rabbinic colleagues, who are interested in how I put their ideology into practice; and the founders of my congregation, who although deceased still have a rightful say as to how their life's work is evolving.

Then let's add those who read my columns and desire to teach me a thing or two.

That brings our total to somewhere around 25,000 bosses, or, purely coincidentally, exactly 100 times the number of plagues inflicted upon the Egyptians at the Red Sea, according to Rabbi Akiba.

Now since we're including the deceased, how about hundreds of generations of Jews who gave their lives for the heavenly yoke that now rests on my shoulders?

And what of the great rabbis of the Talmud?

What of the Six Million?

What about Moses?

What about God?

Speaking of the One Upstairs, what about my wife?

And what of my two children, asleep upstairs every night at 10:30 when I creep in through the front door, wondering aloud whether I've betrayed my own family in the interest of promoting family values?

What about Israel, which needs my active support, and all the worthy fund-raising organizations that rely on my passions and integrity to get their message across?

What of my other homeland, America, which desperately needs non-fundamentalist religious role models to rescue it from the dangers of the Ralph Reed Right?

I've got plenty of bosses, but for me it all comes down to three -- exclusive of the Ones Upstairs.

- The aforementioned "700 Club," my congregants.

There is no question about it: They hired me, they trust me, and I work for them. The relationship is far more complex than employer-employee because, while they instruct me, my instructions are to lead them. But that's no different from Bill Clinton's relationship with his 250 million bosses, or any hired CEOs. What is different is that I also name them, marry them and bury them. I encounter their children at several stages of growth and am deeply involved with them at the most emotion-saturated times of their lives. I am seen by many as their primary link to the Source of their Being, their community, their own parents and to immortality.

All this, and I am accountable to them if anything goes slightly awry.

- The as-yet unborn.

A chief of the Iroquois nation once said, "We are taught to plant our feet carefully on Mother Earth because the faces of all future generations are looking up from it."

That's an interesting twist on the Cain and Abel narrative. When Jews look at the Earth, we hear the cries of the deceased; but Native Americans look forward, routinely measuring the impact of their actions not on the next generation but several generations hence.

I'm capable only of looking ahead two or three decades, and even then the picture is frustratingly cloudy.

But I know that every decision I make influences the Jewish world my grandchildren will inherit and whether or not they will be Jewish at all. When I'm tempted to relax standards for the convenience of a congregant (and to avoid conflict), that grandchild yanks at my conscience and says, "No, you can't tell him it's OK to have the bar mitzvah party on the Goodyear blimp. What will become of me?"

- Myself.

Not myself now, but myself 25 years from now, the one who will be looking back at a full career. I want to be able to say that I made a difference, that I did all I could to seek my destiny and fulfill it.

It is no coincidence that the Hebrew word for work, avodah, is also the word for worship. Our work is nothing less than our supreme offering to God, whether we are a rabbi, doctor or welder. Each of us must try to discern the cry of the times, perceive this mission and act on it. I see my task as being analogous to that of the ancient biblical prophet, of whom Heschel wrote, "He is neither a singing saint nor a moralizing poet. His images must not shine, they must burn."

Nikos Kazantzakis posited that if we are each a bow in God's hands, then there are three kinds of prayers uttered by three kinds of souls. The first says, "Draw me, Lord, lest I rot"; the second, "Do not overdraw me, Lord, I shall break"; and the third says, "Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break."

If I may combine metaphors, a quarter-century from now I want God to have spent all the burning arrows in the quiver marked "Hammerman." For when all is said and done, I will have to answer to no boss.

But I will have to account for all those unused arrows -- and for the bow that refused to be overdrawn.