Vacation

      A modern Hebrew word encapsulates the purposes and benefits of vacation. The word nofesh, used to mean recreation or vacation, is rooted in the word nefesh, or soul. Nofesh affords one the opportunity to refresh and revitalize the soul, to relax, think, read, write and recreate, away from the demands of every day life. Its need is universal, but recently, several articles have championed the indispensability of vacations for the practitioners of one particular profession, the clergy.

      The New York Times featured two such articles recently, the first by a former pastor dealing with the phenomenon of clergy burnout.

(http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/opinion/08macdonald.html?src=me&ref=general)

“[P]art of the problem, as researchers have observed, is that pastors work too much. Many of them need vacations, it’s true. But there’s a more fundamental problem that no amount of rest and relaxation can help solve: congregational pressure to forsake one’s highest calling.” The writer describes quite vividly the changes in clergy expectations in recent years: “The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them…[Clergy are] no longer expected to offer moral counsel in pastoral care sessions or to deliver sermons that make the comfortable uneasy. Church leaders who continue such ministerial traditions pay dearly.”

     The clergy as entertainer is judged based on the criteria with which other, more professional, entertainers are judged: box office, ratings and likeability, translated as bodies in seats generating a sufficient amount of laughter and good cheer. That can be both a difficult task to one unsuited for it and an inappropriate one for the person who studied and trained to preach G-d’s word. Certainly, a pleasing, pleasurable presentation helps deliver the message more effectively, but when the style becomes the substance, much is lost. A story that enhances the idea can have a powerful impact, but when the audience craves – and hears – only stories, the message (if there is one) becomes diluted.

     The writer: “In the early 2000s, the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves. The unspoken message in such instructions is clear: give us the comforting, amusing fare we want or we’ll get our spiritual leadership from someone else.” That is pressure that only an extended (permanent ?) vacation can relieve. “Congregations that make such demands seem not to realize that most clergy don’t sign up to be soothsayers or entertainers. Pastors believe they’re called to shape lives for the better, and that involves helping people learn to do what’s right in life, even when what’s right is also difficult.”

     The other article was even more threatening. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/nyregion/02burnout.html?pagewanted=1)

    “The findings have surfaced with ominous regularity over the last few years, and with little notice: Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.

    Public health experts who have led the studies caution that there is no simple explanation of why so many members of a profession once associated with rosy-cheeked longevity have become so unhealthy and unhappy.

   But while research continues, a growing number of health care experts and religious leaders have settled on one simple remedy that has long been a touchy subject with many clerics: taking more time off.”

      The writer avers that there are clergymen who have always been averse to vacations, figuring that the Lord never takes a day off, so how could they ? I am not one of them, but I do know some of them. The favorable way of approaching their reluctance not to be seen is to attribute it to their dedication, but there is an unfavorable way of approaching it too, and ultimately they might be cheating themselves, their families and their congregations of the full value of their personalities and services.

       Interestingly, the notion of the well-earned vacation was quite familiar to the Torah giants of the 19th and 20th centuries. The leaders of famous towns and yeshivot (R. Chaim Soloveitchik, R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, to name just two) and Chasidic Rebbis by the dozens would descend on the spa towns and mountain retreats of Switzerland, Hungary and elsewhere for the month of August, if not longer (corresponding to the time period after Tish’a B’Av until sometime in Elul). The change of scenery was itself invigorating, and the camaraderie developed between the distinguished vacationers – who, due to the communications system and travel opportunities then extant, otherwise had little personal interaction – enriched their spiritual lives as well.

      I have come to realize the sublime advantages of the occasional get-away. There are very few 24/7 jobs today; the clergy (here, I can only speak for the Rabbinate) is one of them. This is an observation, not a complaint. The Rabbi is always on call – crisis, question, comment, presence. If the average person works five days a week, that itself is tantamount to 104 days off during the year, or more than three months, and that is before actual vacations are factored. The Rabbi has none of that, and the rest days for other people (Shabbat, Sunday) are work days for him; for me, oddly, Mondays are just as busy, if not busier. So, too, there are no set hours in the rabbinate, and early mornings and late nights are relatively normal. No wonder I have heard that Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has referred to rabbinical vacations as the “holy of holies,” never to be encroached upon.

      Interestingly, I was informed by some non-Orthodox Rabbis several years ago that the non-Orthodox movements have institutionalized the weekly “day off” for the rabbi, whether Monday or Wednesday – whatever day of his choice. Unless a member actually dies, the rabbi is not to be disturbed. I informed them that I did not see how that could work in an Orthodox context, because we go to shul AM and PM, and once there, we gladly respond to the issues, needs and questions on people’s minds. (Told, casually, “well, don’t go,” I remember responding, “I have to go anyway, to daven!”) The Times article also notes that the Conservatives now recommend three or four month [sabbaticals] for every three or four years of service. Interesting.

      My teacher and mentor Rabbi Berel Wein once wrote that the Rabbi’s vacations should be “long enough to be meaningful to the rabbi and his family but not too long that the people realize they can get along quite well without him.” That is a hard balance to strike. A simcha missed can never be replaced, and a funeral missed can never be re-attended. That is the downside of any time away. But in Israel for the last few weeks, I have been privileged to see many members of our synagogue family, offering comfort at moments of sorrow and celebrating together at joyous events (Bar Mitzvahs and weddings). To me, it is a special thrill to see them, and their children and grandchildren, in Israel and to join in their festivities and milestones. Most of my colleagues here have similar experiences and the life events that mark our lives therefore continue apace, and appropriately so.  

        None of the above should be construed in any way as a complaint, because I have been blessed (as I know some of my colleagues have not been) with congregations that were (are) quite understanding of the rewards of vacation despite the occasional costs to them (and, I hope, never too eager to see me leave).

        Vacation is free time to pursue endeavors that time simply does not allow the rest of the year but that assuredly benefits the rabbi in the conduct of his rabbinate. In addition to learning Torah, I am able to recommend four books that I read this summer, somewhat diverse, all fascinating: “Why Jews are Liberals” (by Norman Podhoretz), “God According to God” (by the physicist Dr. Gerald Schroeder), “The Prime Ministers” (by Yehuda Avner, a remarkable, riveting book that at 703 pages is actually too short) and “The Great Money Binge: Spending Our Way to Socialism” (by former Wall Street Journal columnist George Melloan), a dash of needed cold water on a hot summer day.

        With the Yamim Noraim “early” this year, right after Labor Day, preparations for those days soon after my return have already begun. In the meantime, nofesh is indispensable for the nefesh, for me and for you.

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