Absence of Gratitude is the Source of Rabbinical Burnout
by Shmuley Boteach
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.