Absence of Gratitude is the Source of Rabbinical Burnout

December 26, 2011 9:57 am 2 comments

Rabbi. Photo: Roel Wijnants.

There was only one non-family member whom I highlighted under the Chupa (wedding canopy) of my daughter eight weeks ago. His name is Shneur Zalman Fellig and when I was a boy of ten, from a broken family with a broken heart, he helped me heal and inspired me in the ways of Chabad. I ultimately became a Rabbi because of him. From there everything followed. The Rebbe chose me to help found a Rabbinical College in Sydney, Australia, where I eventually married my wife, and my daughter chose to marry a young Chabad Rabbi from California.

I have dedicated books to Shneur Zalman and speak of his contribution to my life constantly. I do so not because I am a good and grateful person but rather because, in the spirit of Hillel’s dictum That which you hate never do unto others, I know what it’s like to feel forgotten and I never wish to inflict it on anyone who has been kind to me.

Twenty-five years ago research indicated that clergy handled stress better than most professions. Now, one in five clergy, according to Roy Oswald of the Alban Institute, score high on the burn-out scale, with Rabbis being at the top of the pack.

Most blame 70-hour workweeks for the burnout but that is simply not accurate. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich will spend more hours per week campaigning. Yet they seem invigorated from 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 many Rabbis, sustained as they are with colossal bonuses that make them feel appreciated.

Rather, the real reason Rabbis, Ministers, and Priests are burning out is an absence of communal thanks and personal gratitude.

The heart is like an aperture and few things have served to close mine more than astonishing acts of ingratitude perpetrated by people whose lives I have changed for the better. To be 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 did was for God, humanity, and the Jewish people, and never to obtain a reward. But rabbis are human, too, and we require the same small tokens of appreciation that constitute basic vitamins by which the soul is nourished.

As a rabbi on campus in the UK for 11 years, my wife and I every year fed thousands of students, studied with hundreds, and brought tens to Jewish observance. We were responsible for having introduced scores of young people to their spouses. I nursed them through their early relationships and placed the marriage on a solid footing. Yet, I later noticed that there was no more assured way of losing a friendship than to do something life-changing for another person. There was the couple for whom I served as matchmaker and counseled through stormy times for more than a year who did not even invite me to their wedding. There was the student whom I prodded to date a woman he professed to have no interest in yet is happily married now many years later. I assisted this student through very difficult professional and personal ordeals and introduced him to many friends who became central to his life professionally and personally. Today, I can barely get him to return an email. And then there were the students to whom I taught the Aleph Bet, the very rudiments of Judaism, and who, over a three-year period, recalibrated their lives to embrace a deep spiritual commitment. But when approached for simple support of my work so that others might experience the same they often tell me that they are too committed to other organizations. I hear similar stories from other Rabbis constantly.

What could account for good people behaving so ungratefully? It’s summed up in the famous story of the Bible regarding the lack of appreciation shown to Joseph by Pharaoh’s chief butler whom the Bible says “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 for a number of reasons. First, their contribution to people’s lives is often spiritual and therefore less tangible than someone who, say, gave you your first job. Second, people usually seek out Rabbis only when their lives are in crisis and forget them once the situation improves. Third, there is an expectation in society that clergy are meant to be spiritual men who give but expect nothing in return, not even a thank you or simply staying in touch, let alone monetary compensation even though they too have families and bills to pay like everyone else. A Rabbi’s time, unlike, say, an attorney, is rarely valued.

But giving and feeling forgotten is the principal reason why an astonishing 75 percent of all divorces today are initiated by wives who feel unappreciated by narcissistic husbands.

The focus of Chanuka is not on a great military victory, seeing as the triumph was short-lived. The Hasmonean dynasty it created would lead just a few generations later to civil war between brothers Hyrcanus and Aristobulus and their catastrophic appeal for intervention to Roman General Pompey the Great, which would eventually lead to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Rather, Chanuka 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 Him instead. 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 to God to give thanks for his triumphs.

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.

My new year’s resolution, therefore, is never to again to fail to give thanks to those who love me, those who stand with me, those who work with me, and those have immeasurably enriched my life for the better.

Shmuley Boteach, whom Newsweek calls ‘the most famous Rabbi in America,’ has just published Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself (Wiley) and on February 1st will publish Kosher Jesus (Gefen), a monumental new study on the Jewishness of Christ and his teachings. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley and on his website www.shmuley.com

This essay is written in memory of Machla Dabakarov, the mother of a dear friend of Rabbi Shmuley, who passed away earlier this year.

2 Comments

  • frania kryszpel block

    How comforting to open up and talk about a heartfelt issue like you have. Manners,respect are now replaced with entitlement. You owe me . Try opening a door for someone and see if they thank you. Whole families can be seen to walk through a door being held open by a nice person and watch what happens. The mother with the baby carriage first,then the husband holding another then the older children, who instead of taking the door from the nice stranger,just walk through,arms down by their side looking straight ahead. No parent even telling the child to grab the door so the nice stranger can now leave. How can children learn class, manners, caring when the parents themselves have none.

  • Thank you, Rabbi Boteach, for your inspiring words. May the article be a catalyst for others to show gratitude, including to their rabbis.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Book Reviews Personalities How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    JNS.org – What would you do if you found out that you had only three more months to live? Gordon Zacks was a successful businessman, a leader of Jewish life, and a confidante and adviser to President George H.W. Bush. He knew that he had prostate cancer, but doctors advised him that it was very slow-growing and nothing to worry about. Then came the day when the doctors told him his cancer metastasized to his liver, and that he had [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Theater 10 Things I Learned From My Play About Holocaust Denial

    10 Things I Learned From My Play About Holocaust Denial

    Last month, my one-man show Hoaxocaust! Written and performed by Barry Levey with the generous assistance of the Institute for Political and International Studies, Tehran ran in the New York International Fringe Festival, where it won an Overall Excellence Award. The play has now been selected to run in the Fringe Encores Series at Baruch College’s Performing Arts Center, for four performances which started on Thursday, September 11. Getting the play to the stage was not easy, however. Here are [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel Israeli Music Producer Racks Up Over 535,000 YouTube Hits – in Two Days

    Israeli Music Producer Racks Up Over 535,000 YouTube Hits – in Two Days

    Phenomenon: Tel Aviv-based musician and “sampler” extraordinaire, Kutiman (aka Ophir Kutiel) has hit another one out of the park with “Give It Up,” a fully-functioning song in its own right, assembled from hundreds of ameteur and instructional music videos. The Jerusalem-born musical prodigy is best know for his diverse online musical projects. In the latest video, uploaded to YouTube on Sept. 12th, Kutiel thanked most of the musicians and individuals he chose to include in the meticulously-edited clip, which opens with [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada Behind-the-Scenes Reel of Ridley Scott’s Moses Epic Shows Scenes Using 4000 Extras (VIDEO)

    Behind-the-Scenes Reel of Ridley Scott’s Moses Epic Shows Scenes Using 4000 Extras (VIDEO)

    A recently released behind-the-scenes reel of Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Exodus: Gods and Kings shows just how far the director has gone to portray one of the Bible’s most famous narratives. In the clip, which shows scenes involving up to 4,000 extras, the visionary director discusses what drew him to the biblical tale of Moses. “The Moses story was a massive challenge, which I really love. I wanted to explore the complexity of his character and I was stunned by [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Turner Classic Movies Showcases ‘Broad Sweep’ of the Jewish Experience on Film

    Turner Classic Movies Showcases ‘Broad Sweep’ of the Jewish Experience on Film

    JNS.org – Since 2006, the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) cable and satellite TV network has hosted “The Projected Image,” a month-long showcase examining how different cultural and ethnic groups have been portrayed on the big screen. At last, after previously covering African Americans, Asians, the LGBT community, Latinos, Native Americans, Arabs, and people with disabilities, the annual series is delving into Jewish film this month. “The Projected Image: The Jewish Experience on Film,” whose first segment aired Sept. 2, runs [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity An Inside Look at the Hasidim (REVIEW)

    An Inside Look at the Hasidim (REVIEW)

    The sight of young girls in pinafores and young boys wearing peyos – sidelocks – dangling over their ears is a sure sign that you have entered the enigmatic precincts of the Hasidim – the pious ones. Veteran New York Times journalist Joseph Berger’s new book, THE PIOUS ONES: The World of Hasidim and their Battles with America, takes the reader on a journey into the enclaves where various sects of Jews live a seemingly outmoded way of life in [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity How Jewish Television Pioneer Milton Berle Inspired Modern Comedy Stars

    How Jewish Television Pioneer Milton Berle Inspired Modern Comedy Stars

    JNS.org – Today’s comedy superstars, especially those whose careers are driven by television, may very well owe their success to pioneering Jewish entertainer Milton Berle. Born Mendel Berlinger in Manhattan in 1908, Berle became America’s first small-screen star. Aptly nicknamed “Mr. Television,” he influenced and helped promote the work of hundreds of younger comics. “Milton Berle was deceptively successful and very Jewish,” says Lawrence Epstein, author of The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America, published the year [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Jewish ‘Hoops Whisperer’ a Secret Weapon for NBA Stars

    Jewish ‘Hoops Whisperer’ a Secret Weapon for NBA Stars

    JNS.org – Idan Ravin’s friends chipped in to buy him a humble but life-changing bar mitzvah gift—a basketball hoop his father attached to the roof of his garage. Little did his friends know that years later, he would be the personal trainer of National Basketball Association (NBA) stars Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, and Stephen Curry. Ravin’s new book, “The Hoops Whisperer: On the Court and Inside the Head of Basketball’s Best Players,” details his rise from a Jewish upbringing [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.