Rabbi preforming wedding in Jerusalem 311.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Twenty-five years ago research indicated that members of the clergy handled
stress better than those in most other professions. Today, one in five,
according to Roy Oswald of the Alban Institute, score high on the burnout scale,
with rabbis being at the top of the pack.
Most blame 70-hour work-weeks
for the burnout but that is simply not accurate. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum
will spend more hours campaigning this week in New Hampshire. Yet they seem
invigorated by the large crowds who cheer them like heroes. Wall Street bankers
put in killer weeks, but they don’t evince the same weariness and exhaustion as
do many rabbis. The colossal bonuses they receive make them feel
Rather, I believe the real reason rabbis, ministers and
priests are burning out is an absence of communal thanks and personal
The human heart is like an aperture, and few things have
served to close mine more than astonishing acts of ingratitude by people whose
lives I have changed for the better. Sure, I try and fight it, as one must. I
never wish to be a victim and seek always to be master of my own emotional
domain. Moreover, the work I’ve done has been for God, humanity and the Jewish
people, not for earthly reward.
But rabbis are human, too. We also need
the tokens of appreciation that constitute basic vitamins that nourish the
Over the 11 years I spent as rabbi at Oxford, my wife and I fed
thousands of students, studied with hundreds, and brought dozens to Jewish
observance. We introduced scores of young people to their spouses, and I was
fortunate to have the opportunity to nurse those relationships through their
early stages and help place the marriages on solid ground.
Yet, I later
noticed that there was no more assured way of losing a friendship than to do
something lifechanging for another person.
There was the couple I
introduced and counseled through stormy times for more than a year. They did not
even invite me to their wedding.
I assisted another student through very
difficult professional and personal ordeals and eventually prodded him date a
woman he professed to have no interest in. He is now a successful professional
and has been happily married for many years, but I can barely get him to return
Conversely, I have been overwhelmed by the huge number of
people in the UK – not just the politicians and celebrities whose letters have
hit the press, but also by laypeople whose lives I touched – who are now
publicly calling for me to be appointed chief rabbi, even though I have
professed no such desire. Irrespective of the possibility, I am moved by their
gratitude for the huge personal investment I made to Anglo-Jewry.
people behave ungratefully? It’s summed up in the Biblical story about Joseph’s
apparent lack of appreciation for the kindness shown to him by Pharaoh’s chief
butler. The Torah says the butler “did not remember Joseph and forgot him.” Why
the repetition? Gratitude is innate. But while it is unnatural not to be touched
by human kindness and have it etched on one’s heart, people also wish to feel
they are innovative and self-made. They therefore find it difficult to
acknowledge a glaring debt of gratitude to another, fearing that ascribing their
success to others will compromise their own sense of accomplishment. They
therefore shirk any sense of obligation by consciously denying the debt. Thus,
the butler did not merely fail to remember Joseph, he consciously chose to
Rabbis and clergy are particularly vulnerable to lack of
gratitude from their communities, first because their contribution to people’s
lives is often spiritual and therefore less tangible, and second because people
often seek out rabbis only when their lives are in crisis and forget them once
the situation improves.
Furthermore, there is a societal expectation that
members of the clergy should be spiritual men who give of themselves but expect
nothing in return.
They are expected to give support and spiritual
guidance with nary a thank you or the common courtesy of simply staying in
touch, let alone monetary compensation, even though they, too, have families to
support. A rabbi’s time, unlike, say, an attorney’s, is rarely
Hanukka, which we celebrated last month, is not really about a
military victory, seeing as the triumph was short-lived. The Hasmonean dynasty
it created would lead just a few generations later to civil war and subsequent
Roman intervention which presaged the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
Rather, Hanukka celebrates the gratitude offered by the Jews for having obtained
Rather then build victory arches to their own military
prowess the Maccabees lit God’s menorah and ascribed the glory to the Creator.
King David was a great warrior but he is remembered today not for his sword but
his harp and lyre, with which he sang psalms of thanks.
Jewish call to gratitude extends even to inanimate objects, as Moses discovered
when God did not allow him to personally enact the plagues of blood, frogs and
lice, seeing as the Nile River and the dust of Egypt had earlier saved his
In this new secular year let us all resolve to give thanks to those
who have enriched our lives for the better.The writer is the author of
The writer has just published of
Ten Conversations You Need to Have with
Yourself (Wiley) and Kosher Jesus, a study on the Jewishness of Jesus and the
Torah sources of his teachings. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley and
on his website www.shmuley.com