On the one hand, becoming a rabbi occurs upon the bestowal of ordination as the culmination of a period of study. This, of course, can lead to a whole host of questions about how rigorous the type of study program ought to be, but for present purposes I want to focus on the meaning of the label “rabbi” in a professional context. The designation “rabbi” is in many ways akin to “doctor”–a job-related title that also connotes societal esteem, trust, and the product of extensive preparatory education. And just as my wife is still a doctor when she is on vacation, so too a rabbi remains a rabbi. While the sunshine (God-willing) may numb the mental capabilities somewhat, I still have the same professional status while on vacation that I had before I left.
On the other hand, being a rabbi is inherently different from being a doctor in one key respect: a rabbi’s work is relational whereas a doctor need not be. Rabbi literally means “teacher”, and a rabbi needs to be in relationship with others no less than a teacher needs students. Whereas a doctor can still practice medicine in an isolated lab, a rabbi cannot be a rabbi in isolation.
But vacation is not isolation (as my children are sure to remind me). When I return to my ancestral homeland of California for vacation, the trickiness of rabbinic identity stems not from an absence of relationships but from the complexity of hanging out from family and friends who see me as Josh, not as Rabbi Ratner. Even if I try to “act” like a rabbi during a family squabble or answer a friend’s halakhic question, I am not really their rabbi any more than they are my congregants.
One year after my own ordination, I can already feel the power the label “rabbi” conveys. As we are taught in rabbinical school, rabbis–like all clergy–serve as proxies for God in the eyes of our laity. Whether we like it or not, we are the symbolic exemplars of all that is religious. And, like the “God complex” surgeons sometimes take on, the rabbinic affect can subtly, subconsciously start to intrude upon one’s own psyche and sense of self-worth. I have always disliked the idea of being a religious token or intermediary between others and the Divine, but I am starting to question how much control I have over this pastoral dynamic when serving in my pulpit, no matter how many sermons about spiritual autonomy I give. So maybe it will be healthy for my sense of humility, during this vacation, to try to focus on reclaiming “Josh” and putting “Rabbi Ratner” on hiatus for a couple weeks.
Every Thursday afternoon at my yeshiva college in Queens my Gemara rebbe (teacher of Talmud) would offer a short thought on the weekly Torah portion. These were usually filled with personal anecdotes from his life or dilemmas he helped students address in previous decades. There was one particular Thursday afternoon message that has remained with me from all those years ago and remains particularly relevant for our society.
It was the Thursday afternoon before winter vacation (or bein hazmanim as we called it in yeshiva) and many of us were anxious about the upcoming time away. Life in yeshiva is very structured and very busy. Every moment in the walls of the beit hamidrash, the study hall is spent delving into the complexities and intricacies of God’s revealed Law. How could we depart from that and enter the serenity and quiet of vacation? So it was on that Thursday afternoon that the rebbe got up and took a breath, making eye contact with each one of us, and said “vacation is kadosh,” vacation is holy.
To invest time in our own well-being and our mental, physical and spiritual health is to also be engaged in a sacred task. The Torah itself in Deuteronomy 4:15 enjoins us to guard ourselves exceedingly. We are commanded to not neglect our own health even when engaged in the most important work.
Americans on average work around 50% more than their European counterparts. We put in longer daily hours, take less vacation and retire later than much of the rest of the Western world. It is also true that so much of what we do is vital for the economy, for our local communities, for our families and for ourselves and yet for it, and for us, to be sustainable we have to learn how to take some time to rejuvenate and recharge. When discussing the Shabbat the Torah charges us to work thereby investing our work with sanctity – “six days you shall work,” but the Torah also commands rests and invests that with sanctity as well.
As I write this I am heeding my rebbe’s advice and my family and I are on vacation. I look forward returning to my work renewed and reinvigorated and my tefillah, my prayer is that more of us heed the call of the Torah to invest in ourselves and come to see the holiness of vacation.