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Wearing down my soul and renewing it

The antidote to burnout is engaging in something that nurtures the soul; Torah learning with colleagues who care deeply about one another feeds and nurtures the rabbi’s soul
Rabbi David Thomas Congregation Beth El Sudbury, Massachusetts Rabbi David Thomas received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Biblical Hebrew from the University of Wisconsin – Madison in 1979. For fourteen years he pursued a career in broadcast journalism as a sound engineer, living in Israel, England, and the United States. In 1993, David answered a lifelong call to be a rabbi. He earned his Master of Arts in Hebrew Literature in 1997 and was


“How do you know when a person knows enough to be a rabbi? When that rabbi knows he or she doesn’t know enough.” With these words Rabbi David Hartman addressed a group of 27 North American rabbis of all denominations who had gathered in Jerusalem . My colleagues and I were in Israel for our second winter retreat of Hartman’s Rabbinic Leadership Initiative , a three-year program of study that brings us together for a week each winter, a month in the summer, and weekly online sessions throughout the year.
By Hartman’s criterion, I guess I was ready the day I was ordained. I received a wonderful education at HUC-JIR. Over five years I acquired a reasonable mastery of Hebrew, Tanakh, and rabbinic literature, as well as practical rabbinics, history, and theology. I developed a framework for understanding our tradition and some of the skills to teach it. In spite of it all, upon ordination, I knew enough to know that I would never know enough.
Today, after more than 10 years in the rabbinate, that hasn’t changed. When I came to Congregation Beth El, I had only three years experience in the rabbinate. But at age 45, I had life experience and audacity enough to suggest to the congregation that for my leadership to be effective, they would have to be as willing to invest in my learning and growth as I was in theirs. We understood that I would need time and resources to continue my learning in order to facilitate theirs. So in my initial contract, in addition to a weekly day off, we agreed I would devote a full day every week to my own Jewish learning.
During my first three years at Beth El I learned with colleagues in Boston; I studied with my cantor, my staff, and with the local Chabad rabbi; I took classes at Harvard and at Hebrew College. But the problem is this: the job of a solo rabbi in a medium-sized congregation is simply not a five-day-a-week job. It is easy to encourage rabbis to study as long as they still complete all of their work. And even if study doesn’t come at the expense of teaching, preaching, officiating at lifecycle events, and tending to the needs of one’s community, it comes at the expense of the rabbi and the rabbi’s family. It wasn’t long before I was burning the candle at both ends.
In my second contract, we made a minor adjustment that made a huge difference. Now I devote a half day a week to my ongoing learning, and the congregation gives me two weeks (in addition to vacation) during the summer to study at the Hartman Institute.
Learning is neither about filling the gaps in one’s education nor acquiring new knowledge or skills. It’s about deepening engagement in Torah lish’ma.
Burnout is not the inevitable result of being too busy; it is the result of being busy with things that wear you down. The antidote to burnout is engaging in something that nurtures the soul; Torah learning with colleagues who care deeply about one another feeds and nurtures the rabbi’s soul.
During our study at Hartman recently, we kvetched about our congregations, shared our deepest anxieties and greatest joys. But mostly, we immersed ourselves in the healing waters of Torah, emerging refreshed, renewed, and ready to return home Torah-transformed.
Rabbi David B. Thomas , a Fellow in the Shalom Hartman Institute Rabbinic Leadership Initiative , is rabbi of Congregation Beth El of the Sudbury River Valley, in Sudbury, Mass. Prior to the rabbinate, he worked in broadcast journalism for 14 years as a sound engineer. This essay is posted, with permission from Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility , March 2009. It is part of a larger cluster of essays reflecting on questions about the rabbinate .

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