Attending a college graduation brings back memories and sparks a discussion about the importance of tending to one's inner life in order to impact the world outside.
By Rabbi Adam Lavitt
Over the next few weeks, I will see several friends receive the title “Rabbi." I remember how touching my ordination ceremony was for me, but also how much was unknown outside the walls of the sanctuary where my ceremony took place: What kind of work did I want to do in the long run? How would I continue to thrive outside the community of learning that had formed me as a rabbi? How would I make new friends as an adult? What would “success” look like to me in my rabbinic work?
Looking back, I realize I was one of the few rabbis in my class who graduated with no prior professional experience. Ordination was also my rite of passage into the so-called “real world," and that world was looking pretty scary to me as I sat on that stage: Over the six years I was in school, I saw the economy crash, Jewish institutional affiliation rates continue to drop and congregational job opportunities diminish significantly. While it was more or less standard to get a job as an assistant rabbi after ordination around the time I first entered school (unless you intended to enter a particular field, like chaplaincy or education), that reality had ended by the time I graduated in 2012.
In the last decade, not just the rabbinate, but most professional fields have been transformed by some combination of political, social and economic forces. The chaos of this constantly shifting world — and the impact these changes have on our professional roles — is a real source of stress that can lead professionals in any field to isolation, burnout and unethical behavior. In response to some of these issues, particularly as they manifest in the training of rabbis, a recent series of essays suggests that rabbinical students must be immersed in an environment that cultivates them as mensches, emotionally self-aware individuals and lifelong learners. Even after the content of any particular class fades from memory, these middot (qualities) — essential to the well being of professionals in any field — will endure.
Last year, speaking to those about to be ordained at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton, Mass., Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi (z”l) urged the rabbis-to-be to make time to “cultivate your inner garden.” I know that since I became a rabbi, as difficult as it has been to prioritize tending my “inner garden," this act has sustained my hope during difficult times, deepened my creativity and resilience, and kept me connected to other people at times when I have felt otherwise isolated. For me, this act of professional and personal self-care includes participating in fellowships that allow me to connect with like-minded colleagues and continue my professional development, sustaining a regular practice of reflective writing, meditation and prayer — not to mention finding an excellent therapist.
This time of year signifies change, loss and transition for many people. As I attend Hebrew College Rabbinical School’s ordination, dozens of other graduation ceremonies will also be taking place in the Boston area. Each of these ceremonies marks a milestone, the beginning of a new journey. Kids are graduating, moving back home or moving away to start careers. Many of my colleagues are starting new jobs. As we mark these transitions, how do we leave behind the roles that have not worked for us? And how do we sustain the capacities and gifts we have cultivated? Regardless of our line of work and where we are in our careers, I hope this time of year reminds us to surround ourselves with companions and guides who can help us act with integrity and nourish our passions. Each day, may we cultivate our inner gardens in order to bring some measure of compassion, curiosity and creativity to our work — and, in turn, to play our unique role in healing this broken world.
Chazak Chazak venit-chazek: May we nourish ourselves to our own place of strength, and as we do so, may we strengthen one another.
Rabbi Adam Lavitt is a spiritual leader, educator and writer living in Philadelphia.
Response by Rabbi Tsura August
I deeply appreciate Rabbi Lavitt’s important teaching on cultivating our “inner garden” as essential to helping us and those we serve, especially through transitions.
Life is full of transitions; in fact, life is a series of transitions! A constant changing, growing, transforming — within us and all around us. From the infinitesimal sub-cellular level to the infinite of multiple universes, all are in transition, all are moving; that is not just the nature of life – it is life.
As Rabbi Lavitt writes, in transitions there are always some things that are left behind — physically, emotionally, mentally. Loss is inevitable — it is a product of change. And yet, I believe there is something that is intrinsic to our natures that continues throughout our lives: our inner guide, the Ikar within.
My work is all about transitions. I am a rabbi and chaplain who works primarily with people receiving hospice or palliative care for themselves or their families, with bereaved family members and with older adults seeking a more meaningful and joyful life. At this profound period of life, the need and the desire to cultivate one’s “inner garden” often cries out for attention. Sadly, many of us have not mastered the skills of cultivating our “inner garden," of experiencing the infinite gift within each of us.
As rabbis, we have been given a spectacular range of “cultivation tools” from our tradition, as well as a line of work that opens the gates to the inner wisdom, the inner garden that resides in all of us, so that our lives can flourish and nourish all of us for the journey ahead — no matter how long and challenging it may be.
Rabbi Tsurah August is Hospice Rabbi for Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia’s Jewish Hospice Network.