Absence of gratitude is the source of rabbinical burnout

No Holds Barred: Society expects members of the clergy to give of themselves but expect nothing in return.

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January 9, 2012 23:00
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Rabbi preforming wedding in Jerusalem 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

 
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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 appreciated.

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Rather, I believe the real reason rabbis, ministers and priests are burning out is an absence of communal thanks and personal gratitude.

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 soul.

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 an e-mail.

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.

WHY DO 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 forget him.

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 valued.

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 their victory.

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.

Indeed, the 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 life.

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

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